By Elisabeth Burnor
On weekday mornings at the Academy, volunteer Bill Frezel can be found at his workbench, sipping coffee and preparing to tackle the latest projects on his to-do list (currently a miscellaneous collection of items, including “rebuild the freeze-dryer vacuum pump,” “order repair parts for the mass spectrometer,” and “install a new muffle oven controller”). Later, he’ll take a break to feed his catfish and Asian swamp eel their daily live worms. Sometimes, he invites a colleague to watch him lower a worm enticingly into the tank until it disappears in a flurry of fins and bubbles.
Frezel was the first recipient of the Al Visco Award for Excellence in Volunteerism in Support of Research, which recognizes volunteers who contribute to the Academy’s scientific mission and workplace quality in our labs and collections. He has volunteered at the Academy for 11 years and as of 2013 had logged 10,000 hours, arriving nearly every day at 7:30 a.m.—long before many Academy staff!
In what Frezel calls his “pre-volunteer life,” he worked as an electrical engineer and managed a dental supply business. When he turned 65 years and four months old, he retired—a transition his wife supported on one condition: “You can retire,” she told him, “but you can’t be home for lunch.”
Frezel’s volunteer life began in June 2004, after a chance meeting with David Hart, the head of the Patrick Center for Environmental Research. Frezel began by assisting a postdoctoral research fellow in the study of black fly larvae, applying his engineering knowledge to the design and repair of data- gathering equipment. Two years and thousands of black fly larvae later, Frezel realized that other Academy research and exhibit departments could benefit from his engineering expertise.
Walking through the Academy’s research labs, Frezel points out just a few of his many contributions. He repaired the heating element of a wax-melting pot, used in the upkeep of The Big Dig, the Academy’s hands-on fossil dig. He built a marsh-coring tool, which extracts large samples of sediment for nutrient analyses of marshes, and an odd-looking hammer-like device.
“They use this for pounding the coring tube into sediment,” he explains. “Anyway, it’s heavy, it’s big, and they told me what they needed so I built it.”
After an old mechanical temperature controller broke in a chemistry lab, Frezel designed a new, electronic version. “State of the art!” he says, patting the machine.
Frezel is continually adding to his résumé. “There’s always work to do,” he says, “but no deadlines!” He regularly freeze-dries the Academy’s diatoms, which were previously stored in large plastic bottles. The freeze-dried specimens take up less space and can be stored more efficiently.
He also assists with seasonal measurements of the environmental health of the Delaware River. In 2013 he repaired and made operational an old ion chromatograph machine, which measures the concentrations of various chemical ions in solution samples. After years of disuse, it began running and producing useful data.
Frezel is constantly merging his lifelong interest in natural science with his engineering background—and there is never a dull moment. His engineering skills allow him to bring new ideas and solutions to the Academy, and he considers his interactions with Academy scientists to be the best part of his volunteer experience.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new,” he says. “I’ve come from the inanimate to the animate,” he laughs, “or, with all these dinosaur fossils, the post-animate!”
[color-box color=”red”]Volunteers have been integral to the success of the Academy for 200 years. Nearly 400 volunteers, from ages 14 to 80+, contribute their time each year toward our mission. Dedicated volunteers assist visitors throughout the museum’s exhibit spaces and provide critical support behind the scenes in research departments and offices. Learn more about volunteering at the Academy. [/color-box]
This article was adapted from the fall 2013 issue of Academy Frontiers.