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Leukemia researcher by day, LEGO designer by night

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Jared_Burks_623.jpgBy Jenny Montgomery

After a long day of helping MD Anderson's researchers pursue a cure for cancer, Jared Burks, Ph.D., relaxes by custom crafting his own LEGO minifigures.

For Burks, the biggest problem with LEGOs is the limited selection of minifigures. Where's the Dr. Who collection? How about some zombie-fighting "Walking Dead" characters?

Burks' solution is to custom-craft his own minifigures. In fact, he's created thousands of them.

Life outside the leukemia research lab
An assistant professor in Leukemia and co-director of the Flow Cytometry and Cellular Imaging Core facility, Burks oversees expensive equipment shared by researchers around MD Anderson. These machines allow researchers to see, sort and analyze thousands or even millions of a person's cells very quickly.

But at the end of the day, Burks' idea of relaxing is focusing on something bigger than a cell. Like a light saber the size of a toothpick. Or a pair of goggles smaller than a thumb tack.

"It lets me turn my brain off," he says.

For ages 4 and . . . way up
Burks spent the first three years of his life in and out of an oxygen tent at an Arkansas hospital, waiting to grow out of a lung condition. LEGOs, he recalls, were among the gifts that visitors often would bring. But by the time Star Wars action figures appeared on the scene, the LEGO buckets had disappeared into a closet, and they didn't capture his attention again until he was a graduate student.

He needed a distraction after long days studying protein movement within cells, and LEGO hooked him with a new Star Wars series. First he modified a spaceship by adding his own decals. Then he turned his attention to the toymaker's disappointing minifigure selection. Han
Solo and Luke Skywalker were easy enough to come by, but what he really wanted was aliens, and it occurred to him that nothing but a lack of imagination could stand in his way. He created 70 figures in 10 days.

"I got consumed," he admits.

How Burks works his magic
Since Burks didn't know of anyone else doing this kind of customization when he started, he had to figure out the "how to" on his own.

He likes to start with a skeleton. That would be a standard LEGO minifigure stripped of markings with the help of some brass polish.

Sometimes he paints the figures. Other times he creates the faces and clothes digitally, then prints out his artwork as decals on a high-end photo printer. For unusual hairdos, hats and other accessories that he can't convert from spare LEGO pieces, he may sculpt parts in clay, like the wings for a Tinker Bell he crafted for his daughter's fifth birthday.

Using dental tools, he creates molds from the clay sculptures and then casts pieces in plastic. Those parts are so precise they can snap onto genuine LEGO pieces. Molds may have to be made again and again for a perfect fit, and to get that high LEGO gloss, plastic pieces must be polished with sandpaper 10 times finer than the kind you could pick up at the hardware store.

It's detailed work -- one minifigure can take a few hours or several months -- but satisfying. The LEGO workroom at Burks' house holds more than 40 cases to display 15 years of work. Burks is particularly proud of his Dr. Who, complete with an appropriately scaled TARDIS police call box. And what about real people? The most common question he gets from colleagues and others acquainted with his hobby is whether he could immortalize them.

"The answer is yes, but it won't really look like you," Burks says. "LEGO doesn't use a nose, and you don't wear the same clothes every day. So unless you have a very signature outfit or dress like a clown, it's tough."

A longer version of this blog post originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson's bimonthly publication for employees.

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