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February 22, 2007

Making Pitt work: Glassblower Lori Neu

Lori Neu is one of a rare breed.

One of the newest employees in the chemistry department, Neu has no advanced degree, yet is an esteemed and essential collaborator with researchers in chemistry, physics, engineering, medicine and more.

A scientific glassblower, Neu is one of a select few with the specialized skills to fabricate and repair laboratory glassware. Her trade’s professional association, the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, counts only 616 members worldwide. And while the group doesn’t identify its membership by gender, few of her colleagues are female, Neu said.

“I blow glass because I can’t type,” joked Neu, who has worked as a scientific glassblower for 20 years, most recently at Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., before arriving at Pitt last September.

Neu’s predecessor, Bob Greer, retired in December, leaving her as the University’s one and only glassblower. In addition to serving the needs of Pitt researchers, for a fee she fabricates and repairs scientific glassware for other institutions as well.

While she may be all thumbs at a keyboard, when she fires up a gas jet and begins heating, bending and turning a piece of glass to create a vessel or specialized apparatus, Neu is a master. “This is not something that just anybody could do,” Neu said. “You need to have that coordination.”

To demonstrate, she invites visitors to her glass shop on the fifth floor of Allen Hall to try their hand at blowing a glass bubble — usually making her point with shattering clarity.

There’s much more to her work than mere dexterity, however. “I love it when I get to learn,” she said, excited with the wide range of work and academic atmosphere she’s found at Pitt. The variety of requests and technical challenges make hers a plum job in her field. “I think all scientific glassblowers would like to work at a university someday,” she said.

“A lot of my work is mental,” Neu said, admitting she takes her work home with her as she ponders ways to make the equipment researchers request.

Because about half of her work is made up of fabricating custom pieces, trial and error plays a role as she devises glassware to meet a particular need.

“It’s kind of an art form for me,” she said, comparing her work to architecture. “I’m building out of the glass.”

Although she is the lone glass shop employee, Neu is a self-described people person and thrives on interacting with the scientists who will use her creations.

“I love to hear what they’re going to be using this stuff for,” she said, noting that she enjoys visiting their labs to see for herself. “I want to know what my piece is going to do for them,” she said. Some simple jobs can be done on the spot; others require weeks to finish.

And Neu likes a challenge. “I like to achieve what looks like it can’t be achieved,” she said.

“I really enjoy the micro jobs,” she said, finding the tight tolerances required fascinating. One of her memorable jobs was building an apparatus that needed to be airtight with openings for electrodes that measured only a fraction of a millimeter. The piece held a very small amount of liquid and a stir bar — a specially coated magnet that allows mixing solutions from outside a vessel — that was the size of a grain of rice.

Because of the tiny size, the consultation and construction took several days, including trial and error, but Neu made it work.

Among the work she’s undertaken recently is the fabrication of tiny glass shields for Carnegie Mellon University researchers who are working on a robot that performs minimally invasive surgery. Their problem, she said, is that blood coagulates on the tip of the surgical instrument, obscuring the tiny camera’s view. Armed with the plastic tip — about the size of a cake decorating tip — and some conversations with one of the researchers, Neu made several tiny shields the size of a fingernail, then asked him to stop by the shop to offer feedback. Neu said she needed to keep in mind not only finding the proper size and shape to allow the shield to be affixed to the plastic tip, but the clarity of the glass as well, so as not to distort the camera’s view.

A brief visit with the researcher assured her she was on the right track, with only minimal modifications needed.

That satisfaction — achieving what the end-users want — is the best part of the job, Neu said.

She relies on her skill, experience and ingenuity, but if there’s a problem she can’t solve, she does research online or asks fellow members of the scientific glassblowers’ professional association.

Neu was exposed early to scientific glassblowing. A native of Carneys Point, N.J., she grew up in an area that, due to an abundance of silica sand, is a hotspot for glassmakers. It’s no accident that Carneys Point also is home to Salem Community College, Neu’s alma mater, which offers the nation’s only scientific glassblowing degree program.

While their numbers are dwindling — there once were four dozen scientific glassblowers in the Pittsburgh area but now Neu is the only one — Neu is convinced there always will be a niche for her increasingly rare skill.

“I believe there always will be a need, but it’s not what it used to be,” she said, noting that increased use of computer simulations and a shift toward plastics and other alternatives have reduced the demand for scientific glassblowing.

An unexpected visitor to the glass shop on a recent afternoon illustrated the advantage of having a glassblower on campus. Wearing a plaintive look, the researcher held up a broken piece of glassware. “It broke while I was cleaning it,” he explained, offering it up for Neu’s inspection. Another piece was fused to the broken part, adding to his dilemma.

The apparatus is part of an engineering experiment that’s testing methods for removing mercury from flue gases.

It’s a scene that is repeated several times a week, Neu said, happy to offer what she can in the way of while-you-wait service.

“When they leave happy, it makes me happy,” she said, pointing out the time-saving advantage of an on-site glass shop.

Not all parts of the job are enjoyable, Neu admits. While she rarely gets burned — even while working with a flame that reaches 2,228 degrees Fahrenheit to melt Pyrex glass, her skin gets rough and dry from the heat. And, “I get cut every week,” she said, noting it’s simply part of the job.

What’s more, there is the occasional heartbreak of broken glass. The worst? “When you worked on a piece for hours and hours on end and it breaks for no reason at all,” she said. Or when the finished piece is broken by enthusiastic recipients before it’s even out the door.

And there’s pressure beyond the workplace. “If you blow glass, people think you should give them ornaments,” she said, adding that she’s gotten burned out on blowing glass at home.

While Neu has only been at Pitt for a few short months, she has big plans for the glass shop. She’s in the process of updating and reorganizing the shop and soon will be able to offer expanded capabilities. A drill press is being customized for her so she will be able to use diamond core drill bits to bore holes for her customers.

She also hopes to start a course to teach basic scientific glassblowing to chemistry department graduate students, all of whom will need to have some glassblowing skills.

Once the University’s carpenters have completed their work in revamping the glass shop to facilitate her work, Neu said she hopes to host an open house so researchers and other University colleagues can get a closer look at exactly what she does.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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