Salk Institute for Biological Studies: InsideSalk

One on One with... Bob Lizarraga

Bob Lizarraga

"...nobody now has the opportunity to see the inside of the empty lab buildings. It was a skin of concrete around a bunch of ribs that held everything in place."

-Bob Lizarraga



It's been said that a tour of the Salk Institute led by Project Manager Bob Lizarraga is one not to be missed. The stories he shares and the perspective he provides during the hour-long journey can only be told by someone who has been around long enough to experience them first hand.

In 1970, after returning from the Vietnam War and with some experience under his belt as a draftsman at an aerospace engineering company – Lizarraga walked onto the Salk campus at the advice of his mother, a UCSD professor of Latin American Studies who told him to look into trying to get a job "at that new Institute across the street." With a full head of black hair stretching down to his lower back, he strolled into the Facilities office and landed an interview with Jonas Salk. It was the start of a 40-year career that came to an end in January when Lizarraga retired as the lead designer of building renovations. At age 65, he was ready to start a new chapter, but in retrospect, Lizarraga says working at the Institute had been the best experience of his life.

Tell me about your job interview with Jonas Salk.
First off, it was just amazing to have the opportunity to meet him. He told me about the overall concept of the Institute and how Facilities was considered to be a member of the team, as were the technicians in the lab. We were all working together toward the same end, which was scientific discovery. The Institute was looking for someone who could design gadgets that they needed in the lab, but couldn't buy out of a catalogue. They had a machinist, but not someone who was skilled in design. So Dr. Salk hired me.

What sort of gadgets would you design?
For instance, there's a thing called the hula shaker. The scientists wanted to take beakers with cells and oscillate them. So we came up with this platform that had a slow-speed motor, and we put an eccentric arm on it and connected it to the top plate. Then we anchored the four corners with tygon tubing from the labs. We made them here for a long time. But then there was a guy who worked in the lab and he went on to work for a company that sells lab equipment. He took one of these devices with him and within a week it was in the catalogue. That happened a few times over the years. There were times when our machinist couldn't build what I drew, and he would tell me to build it. My dad was a master machinist, so I grew up around a machine shop. So I knew enough to make things, or just enough to get into trouble (laughs).

How did you make the transition from designing gadgets to reconfiguring lab space?
In the mid-to-late 1970s there was a higher demand for changes in lab space and less of a need for the gadgets. Dr. Salk wanted to change his lab, so that was one of the first drawings we did. Then Dr. (Renato) Dulbecco had a big tissue culture area that he wanted to redesign, so we did that. But it really took off when we started populating the south building. That was fun because nobody now has the opportunity to see the inside of the empty lab buildings. It was a skin of concrete around a bunch of ribs that held everything in place. It's like a car or a plane, where you have harnesses, cables and tubing that are all part of this vehicle and you move components around inside of it. I looked at it as repackaging components that were meant to be moved around inside of the exterior shell. I thought of it as an engineering problem that needed a solution. At that point, I started studying design and architecture techniques on my own, which led me to where I'm now.

That's precisely the philosophy behind why the buildings were designed the way they were, right?
That's right. The laboratories were outfitted in such a way so that they could be easily adapted to new configurations. All the interior partitions were not load-bearing so they could be dismantled or added to create new environments that lent themselves to the direction of the science. And as new technology was allowing the scientists to do their work in a different manner, the spaces within the building had to keep up with that and allow them the benefit of applying that new technology all within the confines of the concrete shell.

Who are some other people who made an impression on you at Salk?
Well, of course, there was Francis Crick. For instance, if Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel were sitting in the courtyard talking about the origins of life on earth, I could walk over to their table with my lunch tray and say, "Do you mind if I sit down?" They would say, "Oh certainly. Sit down." I wouldn't lend anything to the conversation, but I could listen to what they were saying and just be totally intrigued by what was going on. Ninety percent of it was going over my head, but there I was in the presence of these two remarkable men. There was also a fellow here by the name of Jacob Bronowski. Even though he was a mathematician, he was very involved with the humanities. He wanted to study the effects of science on mankind, and while he was here, he finished his book, titled The Ascent of Man, which later became a film. He was like a walking encyclopedia. I got to know him because he would help me with some mathematical problems. But later I would just ask him questions. I've always been intrigued by my ancient heritage – the Aztecs and the Mayans. But I could speak with Bronowski about that kind of stuff, and he would give me his opinions. That was amazing. I would also ask him about bits and pieces from The Ascent of Man. And he would elaborate on that, too, or marvel at my stupidity (laughs). Bob Holly was another one. He was a scientist who won the Nobel Prize, and he was an artist. Although I couldn't do it every day, I would go watch him sculpt things in clay that eventually became bronzes. Anything that struck my fancy, there was always someone here I could engage and get more information from. I came to find out that scientists are very gifted people who express themselves in many different ways.

Describe the work environment at Salk in the early days.
We were asked to become part of Dr. Salk's family, and that's exactly how it felt. We had regular meetings at least every two weeks. Keep in mind there were only 125 of us here at the time, so it was easy to gather everyone. We would be brought up to date on what was going on. We'd learn about new grants, new people who had been hired and all the things going on in the different laboratories. It was like in the ancient times when the tribes came together for their big pow-wow. We had an employees association then. And everyone at the Institute would give a dime for every $100 of their pay. So you gave like $2 per paycheck, but everyone did it. By the end of the month, we'd have more than $500. So we'd have a Valentine's Day dance, a St. Patrick's dance, or a picnic. We would have an event every single month. Then we'd have volunteer staff members who would do the decorations, hire the dj, arrange for refreshments ... we were a family.

What are some of your fondest memories of the Institute?
Being able to know everyone by their first name. I met Dr. Salk at my interview and I saw him at least once a day while he was here. But even after he left and he would come back infrequently, he never forgot my name. He knew about my parents, who they were and what they did. There was a point when I knew everybody's first name – even when we were up to 500 staff members. But as we got bigger, it became harder. Knowing everyone here, knowing who their kids were, or that they were going to college or that they got into the Army – that gave you a sense of unity and warmth.

Why are you retiring?
After 40 years, I think I've done my damage (laughs). Granted, I've learned a lot. I have truly been afforded the opportunity to grow here, and my life has become so much richer for it. My father worked until he was almost 75 years old and I saw him having to deal with going to work as an older man. I also saw him missing the opportunity to have a different richness in his life. I want to have a second life that's dedicated to just enriching myself in a whole different manner. So I want to stop, put this away and start a new chapter.

What will you miss most about working at the Salk?
This may sound contrived but, what I will miss the most is the daily challenges to perform at a high level of speed and accuracy. There has always been a lot of time to talk about ideas and projects but here at Salk, there is always a fixed deadline for completion or occupancy. As the talks and ideas and schemes drag on, the completion date does not. This inevitably always leaves little time to prepare drawings for the projects, yet the end result has to be correct and properly built. All this chaos can result in a tremendous sense of accomplishment at the end. When people say, "Thank you. It is just what I wanted," they have no idea how rewarding that simple statement can be.


InsideSalk 02|10 Issue | © Salk Institute for Biological Studies