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The lab has stable federal funding now, he said, but he remembers more humble beginnings. Ellis started at the lab in 1981 as a graduate student, when he said the shortage of grants required them to be creative.
And he’s kept that mind-set over the years.
When a researcher in the lab recently wanted to model rainwater runoff, Ellis made a trip to Home Depot. Using rice to simulate rain, he picked up a Rubbermaid tote to catch the “rain.” Then he bought some metal for it to land on, a vacuum to clear it off and other materials to make a motor that would serve as the clouds. The whole mechanism cost about $1,500, but was worth more than that in manpower.
But the trade-off is often the increased time and effort it will take researchers to use it.
“Taking older technology, cheaper technology, you’re not going to answer every little question,” he said. But, he added philosophically, “there’s still an infinite number of unanswered questions.”
Rebecca Harrington is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.
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