“It’s just a knack that you have…a different way of thinking.”


pic Kientz with one of his creations, a cooling system that maintains cell slides at a temperature of minus 10 degrees Celsius.


Electronics engineer, School of Engineering and Applied Science

Length of service:
4 years

Other stuff:
The 35-year-old engineer once specialized in rehabilitation equipment and enjoys carpentry.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Looking at the devices strewn about Terry Kientz’s office, it soon becomes obvious why he won this year’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) staff recognition award.
For example, one invention Kientz built and designed, called a thermo-chamber, is especially clever. Constructed for a research experiment at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, the device resembles a box which contains a self-heating knob. Patients put their hands through an opening on the side and grab the knob, allowing researchers to sample blood at a controlled temperature. Before this invention, heating pads were wrapped around the wrists of patients. A once clumsy procedure is now suddenly made simple.
Luckily, Monell doesn’t have a monopoly on Kientz’s talent. Since 1997, Kientz has designed and fabricated lab equipment for Penn’s Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) and Systems Engineering departments. Whether helping undergraduates with their senior projects or fashioning equipment for faculty research projects, this electronics engineer is a proven indispensable part of SEAS. On a recent visit to his lab in the Towne Building, Kientz wowed us with all kinds of neat gadgets.

Q. How did you get started at Penn?
I interviewed here [with R. Vijay Kumar, professor of Mechanical Engineering and deputy dean for research] because the job was posted and I thought this was a great fit. His [Kumar’s] interests are also in equipment design for the disabled.
We kind of hit it off and that’s how I came to Penn. I’ve worked half MEAM and half Systems [Engineering] since I started, which was in October 1997.

Q. A researcher has a project and needs equipment to carry it out. What do you do from there?
Most times I’ll try to research to see if there’s something commercially available so we don’t have to design it from scratch. But most times when they come to me, there isn’t anything out there that they can use. Or if there is something, then we can modify it. We can take a piece of equipment and tweak it to make it work the way they want it.

Q. How different is it to work with students versus faculty?
Well, the faculty is nice because usually they’ll say I need this and they won’t come back to you. You make what they want and that’s cool. With the students, I interact with them more because they are trying to figure out what you’re doing. Most of them don’t want to just give it to you and say here fix it for them. It’s interesting to work with undergrads because they always want to interact with you.

Q. What’s the best part of your job?
The best part is coming up with unique designs and to actually get it to work. I think that’s one of the reasons why I like this job. It’s not just sitting at a desk doing engineering. For example, when I used to work at Hamilton Standard, the engineers would just sit there and do the designs—they didn’t do any fabrication. But with this job, I get to do the design but I also get to do the fabrication because then I can refine my design when I’m doing my fabrication. I kind of put the two together. I get to see it work at the end. That’s really satisfying.

Q. Do you think this skill comes naturally?
My wife tells me it’s just a knack that you have. She says that it’s a different way of thinking. I can usually just figure out something just by looking at it. I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it. A lot of times I think of other mechanisms in the past that I’ve seen or I’ve made or I think I can do it with this or with that. So it’s like having a databank of information from the past.

Q. Have you ever built something for your own personal use?
. No, but for rehab engineering I did a lot of work for people. For example, I had this lady who had multiple sclerosis, and the only thing she could do was blink her eyes. She was at the last stages of it. She lived on this hill and her deck went out and she loved to watch her birds, but she couldn’t get up. I made this device that had a video camera on it, kind of like a tripod. It connected to the television that was in front of her bed and the camera was out her sliding door. I made it so that she could control the pan and tilt of her camera with her eye. There was a switch that adhered to her eye and she could blink her eyes and it would trigger the switch.

Q. Did you know you were being nominated for this award?
No, not at all, not until I won it. They said, “Hey you won it.” And I was like, “Wow, this is impressive.” After I did win, I got a lot of great feedback from students and staff, which is very nice because you don’t always get that feedback, and it’s nice to know that you’re appreciated by people and that you helped them.

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Originally published on September 27, 2001