Biochemist photo-fiddler

A GSK scientist spends his leisure time building makeshift photography equipment to capture some uniquely beautiful images

Dec 3, 2010
Cristina Luiggi
GlaxoSmithKline biochemist Linden Gledhill had already built a telescope from scratch using an old library book as a guide by the time he got out of college. He can name hundreds of insects, flowers, and the likes with the enthusiasm of a hardcore naturalist. And his linkurl:photography,; a hobby he tends to in his evenings and weekends, could easily be mistaken for that of a full-time pro.
Lungwort stamen Image: Linden Gledhill
Sharing a wooden bench with him in a quiet, verdant park in Philadelphia's historic Old City, I can't help feeling that I'm in the presence of a bona fide Renaissance man.A native of Staffordshire, England, Gledhill was transferred to Pennsylvania around two decades ago by GSK. As a medicine and process delivery leader, he is in charge of nursing potential drug molecules from their infancy in test tubes, to large-scale production in fermentors, to their purification for use in clinical trials. But as his administrative duties mount, he spends less and less time doing bench work. "That's where the photography comes in," he says—a hobby he took up with his father when he was around 12 years old. "It allows me to escape that stress of leadership and being in charge. It's going back to just playing around with stuff."
Wasp Image: Linden Gledhill
By "playing," he means engineering high-tech photography equipment from junk lying around his garage. He designed a system for capturing images of insects in mid-flight, for example. With some ingenuity, a hodgepodge of parts, such as small mirrors, PVC pipes, and old computer hard-drives—as well as some help from a small company called linkurl:Cognysis,; which provided him with an ultra-sensitive time control unit—he built a portable apparatus that could snap photos of the bugs as they fluttered around his garden. "He's got this great mechanical mind," says Darrell Matthews, a colleague of Linden's at GSK. "He sees a problem, and it's not an obstacle. He'll build the solution."
Mold on Raspberry Image: Linden Gledhill
Most of his creations are borne out of some present curiosity. To photograph mold that was growing on a raspberry forgotten on his kitchen counter, for example, he had his daughter bring back a standard light microscope lens from her school so he could slap it in front of his camera.It's a talent Gledhill says he inherited from his father, who did maintenance work for chemical plants. "To him, thinking through how to build something was something that he did as a living, and it rubbed off on me," he says. One of his latest creations even caught the attention of an advertising agency looking to commission some photography work for Canon's latest ad campaign. During the winter of 2008, with no insects or vegetation to photograph, Gledhill decided to try his hand at capturing a splash of paint as it rose through the air—an idea he got from a linkurl:photographer; he greatly admires. Stretching a balloon over an old computer speaker, he sent droplets of paint flying through the air with the sound of a computer-generated musical note and captured their fantastic fluid shapes with millisecond accuracy using the time control unit from Cognysis.
Water figure Image: Linden Gledhill
Canon caught wind of his winter hobby and recruited his work to promote their new PIXMA color printers. The photos appeared on billboards, newspapers, big screens, and went viral on the Web. "The whole shoot was using a piece of junk that I pulled out of the trash," he says, with the gross modesty I've come to expect from him throughout our conversation. "It's quite comical." Gledhill also designed a patented photo stacking system for capturing high-resolution images at high magnification, which Cognysis has built and released commercially. And although a number of professional gigs have been lining up for Gledhill after the Canon stint, he is not planning to quit his day job anytime soon. He'd give his photos away for free to anyone who's willing to hang them up on a wall, he says. And he gives a rundown of all his designs on his popular Flickr site. "His accomplishments are meant for self-entertainment," Matthews says. "That's how he sees them."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Lions, meet BeetleCam;
[18th June 2010]*linkurl:A garden-variety scientist;
[1st June 2007]*linkurl:Artist focuses lens on viruses;
[26th January 2007]