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Dave Olson, Published November 06 2011

It's My Job: NDSU engineer is go-to guy for researchers

FARGO - Jim Bahr’s favorite toy as a kid was an erector set.

But perforated steel plating has its limits, design-wise, and Bahr would resort to improvising: taking apart old radios and appliances and rearranging their components into something new.

Bahr is now a senior research engineer at North Dakota State University’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

And while his work echoes his childhood pastime, his creations are much more than playthings for fellow researchers, including scientists at NASA.

Q: Please describe your job.

A: I’m a research engineer. I design and build automated equipment to help the researchers (at NDSU) conduct their experiments. I also have projects with some outside companies.

Why do they come to you?

Usually they’re coming to me because they can’t buy it.

Where do you get your ideas?

I have to come up with something new, and that requires lying awake at night, thinking in the shower, that kind of thing.

Can you give an example of something you invented?

I’m designing a machine to wash hair – not on a human head, but hair samples – to help study the effect of different shampoo chemistry.

Do you have a design specialty?

We do paint research, so I develop machines that will either apply paint or test paint for color, gloss, toughness.

Does your work help with home repair?

I’ve done all the plumbing, electrical, painting and tile. So having that knowledge helps around the house – and the “honey do” list.

What do you find most satisfying about what you do?

Developing a solution for a researcher and seeing it improve their creativity.

They also tell me when there’s a problem, but they’re very appreciative when it works.

How long have you been doing this?

At NDSU for nine years. Prior to that, I did it for 10 years at Denver. There, I built tools that are in use at NASA.


The projects involved air and waste purification and recycling, mainly life-support systems. If we send people to Mars, these technologies would be in the waiting for that.

Where did you get your schooling?

I graduated from NDSU with a mechanical engineering degree. I moved to Denver because there weren’t that many jobs. But this new center at NDSU allowed me to move back and do this kind of work closer to home.

Do you work alone?

I have undergraduate students that work for me. I’ll do all the design and planning; then I’ll have them be the hands-on people as much as possible. In the end, they get the experience and a good job afterwards.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

To submit an idea for “It’s My Job,” email businessnews@forumcomm.com.