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October 28, 2010

Glassblowing class helps scientists make, repair apparatus

Foot traffic outside Pitt’s glass shop in Allen Hall often slows when the University’s scientific glassblower is at work.

Amid the hiss of gas and the glow of flames from a hand torch, Lori Neu works magic — repairing broken glassware or creating custom apparatus — all the while making it look easy.

Neu is happy to demonstrate and explain her work to visitors, and now is letting a select group of graduate students try their hand at the basics of her profession.

Despite the fact that Pitt has had at least one glassblower on staff for decades, the course offering is believed to be a first at the University.

Last spring, Neu, in conjunction with chemistry faculty member Tara Meyer, offered basic scientific glassblowing as a one-credit graduate-level advanced topics course. Neu will teach the course again this spring and hopes eventually to broaden its availability. Currently, the class is limited to five and open only to doctoral students in chemistry.

Students learn to bend and join glass, making various kinds of seals and adapters. They also learn to complete simple repairs and to fabricate simple apparatus, such as bubblers for bubbling gases through a liquid, and tube-within-a-tube condensers for condensing vapors.

In the not-so-distant past, many chemists did their own glassblowing, Neu said. With the rise of computer modeling, the availability of other materials such as ceramics and plastics and the broader array of scientific glassware available through catalogs, there isn’t as much call for the skill today.

But emergency repairs still are needed and custom work isn’t always readily available, Neu said. Scientific glassblowers are few and far between. According to the field’s professional organization, the American Scientific Glass Society (ASGS), Neu is one of only two in Pennsylvania and is among only 26 in the northeastern U.S.

Pitt scientific glassblower Lori Neu assists Tao Li as he learns to gather glass to form a custom flask.

Pitt scientific glassblower Lori Neu assists Tao Li as he learns to gather glass to form a custom flask.

Chemists, physicists and chemical engineers are the main users, but many disciplines have some need for scientific glassblowing. To date, Neu counts customers from 34 different areas, including materials science, radiology and cardiology as well as some outside the University.

“Someday I’d like to see graduate students from all over,” Neu said, adding that she’d like to arrange her workshop to accommodate as many as seven students.

Given that many of her customers in the glass shop have expressed interest in learning more about what she does, Neu is convinced that plenty of prospective students are out there. Nevertheless, graduate chemistry students would have priority — not solely because she’s officially a chemistry department staff member, but also because they stand to use the skills most frequently. “It’s an exciting opportunity for graduate students to get a hands-on feel for scientific glassblowing that someday may help them in their research,” Neu said.

A proposal to expand the course is in the works, said Meyer, who oversees and advises the course while leaving the hands-on instruction to Neu.

Meyer noted that as the glassblowing field has become more industrialized, fewer local glassblowers are available to create custom work, making it more imperative for scientists to have some ability to do their own glass work.

“In one term, they’re not going to be able to make the things she can make,” but students in Neu’s class will gain an understanding of what can be fabricated from glass, allowing them to envision custom designs, Meyer said.

She sees a green aspect to the course as well. “Across the scientific world, lots of glassware that is broken in a small way is thrown away instead of being repaired,” in spite of the fact that, in contrast to many other materials, holes in glassware can be repaired “and made as good, as strong and as useful as the original,” Meyer said. “The ability to repair it is nice in a sustainable way.”

Neu said she expressed interest in offering instruction in glassblowing when she interviewed at Pitt, but after taking the job in 2007 delayed launching the course until she settled into her new surroundings and gauged her own workload. Extrapolating from ASGS survey data, Neu estimated that about one-third of the nation’s university glassblowers offer some sort of glassblowing instruction.

Her class currently is set up as a three-hour lab held once a week, although Neu is considering proposing alternatives, such as expanding the class to two credits or compacting the one-credit class into a half-term, meeting twice a week to minimize the gap between classes.

She said glassblowing is like riding a bike — students may have the ability but need to refresh their knowledge each time if they’re not doing it regularly. “Students would get more out of it if they came twice a week for three hours each time,” Neu said, adding that in addition to focusing on gaining basic skills, students could try their hand at fabricating more complicated apparatus and have extra practice time in the shop.

Neu isn’t aiming to train a new generation of scientific glassblowers, despite the fact that the field’s professional society numbers only about 650. Instead, she hopes to send at least a few chemistry graduates into the world with the ability to make simple repairs, fabricate some basic glassware and better understand the principles behind glassblowing so that they are better able to work with a scientific glassblower when they need custom-designed glassware.

Neu helps student Kristy Gogick tip off a vacuum tube from a glass manifold.  During the spring 2010 term, Neu offered hands-on instruction through a new glassblowing course for graduate chemistry students. The class will be offered again in the coming spring term and Neu hopes to expand its availability.

Neu helps student Kristy Gogick tip off a vacuum tube from a glass manifold. During the spring 2010 term, Neu offered hands-on instruction through a new glassblowing course for graduate chemistry students. The class will be offered again in the coming spring term and Neu hopes to expand its availability.

Although Neu’s years of experience and advanced skill level make glassblowing look simple, it’s not as easy as it looks. Some will find the exacting work relaxing; others reap only frustration. To ensure students have an idea of what they’re signing up for, “The course prerequisite is to come see me first and blow glass,” Neu said. “You’ve got to be willing to physically try it,” she said, cautioning that although safety is a primary emphasis, the risk of cuts and burns comes with the territory.

After initial instruction in safety, each class period generally consists of a demonstration and discussion of the skills Neu hopes to impart, followed by hands-on practice.

The three students who completed the course last spring gave it high marks.

Christy Gogick is among the researchers who take their broken glassware to Neu for repair, and said she was fascinated by the prospect of learning to work with glass herself. Gogick said the course presented a unique opportunity. Comparing notes with friends in graduate chemistry programs at other universities, “None of them have this available to them,” she said.

Her classroom experience started out “disastrous,” but by the end she gained competence. She found it useful to learn basic repairs and expects those skills will come in handy after graduation. Gogick hopes to launch a career in industry or government.

Student Peter Bell, who plans to teach after he earns his PhD, leaped at the chance to sign up for the course and hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for working with glass. He’d like to see an intermediate level course for students interested in going beyond the basics.

Although Bell would like to lecture at a large university, he anticipates most teaching opportunities will be at smaller colleges with smaller budgets. “You’re not going to have a glassblower on campus and you’re probably not going to have the resources to get lots of glassware.” Knowing how to repair glass will be a unique addition to his qualifications, said Bell.

In Neu’s class he learned to bend, pull and join glass tubing in a variety of ways. After a semester’s worth of learning the basic joints, “We probably have the tools to make anything,” he said.

Tao Li began the course with a head start on his classmates. Part of his work in the lab of chemistry faculty member Nathaniel Rosi involves testing materials’ reactions in sealed glass tubes. He estimates he might prepare 20-30 such samples in a day, having learned from another graduate student how to pull a vacuum and seal the glass tubes to create an environment devoid of water and oxygen.

“Still, I learned a lot in class,” he said, noting that Neu showed him a faster way to seal the tubes.

“It was not very easy at the beginning, but it was not too hard. Lori teaches very well,” he said.

Each week brought a different skill — learning a new type of seal or how to create something useful. The one-on-one attention helped him through the parts he initially couldn’t do well.

At the end of the term students were challenged to combine their skill and imagination to create a complicated piece. Li’s masterpiece was a complex maze of intricately connected glass tubing. As another test of his skill and creativity, he formed a miniature teapot from the glass tubing.

Li said he found the course relaxing, adding that he enjoyed having the opportunity in class to focus entirely on the glass. “Most important is I had fun.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 5

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