Celebrating 45 Years of Service

Tom Nozaki has been a mainstay in flow cytometry research and computer support in the Herzenberg laboratory since 1974 and in the Stanford Shared FACS Facility since its inception.  Many of the important developments in flow cytometry instrumentation and computation have depended on his electronic devices and modifications to commercial instruments. Thus, since flow cytometry is key to many modern therapies, Tom’s work has benefitted countless numbers of HIV, transplant and other patients.

Tom makes things work.  Whether it’s by having a spare part already on hand or through sheer persistence and attention to detail in trying multiple alternatives, he has minimized computer system problems and down time in the Stanford Shared FACS Facility to the great benefit of hundreds of researchers.

Since Tom represents the best institutional memory in the areas he has worked in, we asked him to summarize his experience of the last 45 years supporting and participating in research at Stanford.

Tom started working at Stanford on October 6, 1969 for the Acme Project (see http://infolab.stanford.edu/pub/voy/museum/pictures/ACME.html). The Principal Investigator was Joshua Lederberg; Gio Wiederhold was the program director.  ACME stood for Advanced Computer for Medical Research.

This was the first timesharing computer established to communicate to a mainframe computer, in this case acquiring and analyzing data using an IBM 2741 computer terminal to communicate with the mainframe.  Tom was hired to work for the Acme Engineering Group, which designed and built interfaces to connect medical and scientific instruments to the IBM 360 Model 50 1800 input-output hardware controller.  This was a primitive time when there were no mini computers or PC technology like today.  ACME served anyone at the University and Medical Center who wanted to computerize their laboratory.  This included the Medical Center, Chemistry, Biology, Aero and Astro, VA hospital, Carnegie Institution to name a few.

During his time with the group, Tom met and worked with Dr. Joshua Lederberg, Dr. Norman Shumway, Dr. Carl Djerassi, Dr. Linus Pauling and other highly distinguished principal investigators using ACME.  At the time, since it was an IBM Computer System, the Stanford Computational Center had oversight over all the computers at the University and SLAC, handling the financial and personnel aspects of the business.  Tom was a 50% Stanford employee and 100% Electrical Engineering Student at the time.  In 1974, after Tom received by EE degree, his friend Nicholas Veizades of the Genetics Department told him that Dick Sweet in the Genetics Department Cell Sorter Group was looking for an engineer to interface their prototype cell sorter to a computer.  So this is how Tom started working in the Herzenberg Laboratory, which was run by Leonard and Leonore Herzenberg.  He has been there ever since, moving over to work part of the time for the Stanford Shared FACS Facility when the facility formally became independent.

Tom initially designed and built the interfaces to connect the early cell sorter to a computer and to provide plotting capability to analyze the data.  Over the years, he made many innovative improvements and attachments to the instrument, nearly all of which were later incorporated into the Fluorescence Activated Cell Sorter (FACS), which was eventually made and is still sold by  Becton Dickinson (BD).  BD took the prototype instrument built by Tom and the Herzenberg engineering group he worked with, reproduced  and commercialized it, and made it commercially available to research and clinical labs around the world. 

While working in the Genetics Department ,Tom was sometimes “loaned out” to work with the Instrument Research Laboratory (IRL) directed by Elliott Levinthal.  Some of the projects they were working on focused on mass spectrometers and interfacing them to computers.  The group was also working on the NASA Viking program, whose mission was to see if there was life on Mars. 

Tom was also involved with the Sumex – Aim Stanford University Medical Experimental Computer Artifical Intelligence in Medicine and later changed names to CAMIS Center for Advanced Medical Informatics at Stanford.  During this time Tom worked on the first Ethernet interface.  This was before Ethernet was standardized and adapted for use the way it is commonly used today, where all computers in the world can communicate over a wide area network.  

Tom continues to work with the Herzenberg lab and the Stanford Shared FACS Facility, which now has eleven FACS cytometers (that Tom watches over).  The Facility provides access to these instruments to any researcher who wants to use them, and provides support services to help the instrument users meet their biomedical research needs.

Over this long career, Tom has shown himself to be extremely adaptable to the needs of the FACS Facility and the Herzenberg research group, which does many front-line biomedical research projects.  From designing whole flow cytometry instruments to fixing the wiring on a hair dryer needed for a lab project, Tom has been – and continues to be – the “go to” person for anything electronic or electrical. In addition, he has been the Herzenberg Laboratory and FACS Facility archivist, maintaining, printing and posting an up-to-date gallery of photos chronicling the well-known and not-so-well known scientists and support personnel who have worked with the group over the last 40 years. 

No wonder Tom is often referred to as a “wonder”.  He deserves the title.