A fragile craft

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Photo by Christopher Peak.

It was close to 95 degrees outside Sterling Chemical Laboratory, but in a small room tucked in the back of the cavernous building, Daryl Smith had his air-conditioning, Pandora radio and blowtorch at full blast.

The blowtorch, at nearly 800 degrees Fahrenheit, was hurling forth an 8-inch-long flame heating a thin glass rod. Wearing mad scientist-like dark glasses, Smith wound the clear tube around a graphite rod. He turned the rod slightly to heat each inch of the growing coil. Eventually he slid the coil off the rod, producing a glass spiral that would become part of a chemical condenser.

The delicate object was based on a wobbly hand drawing a Yale chemist had given to Smith, Yale’s scientific glassblower, who translates researchers’ complex and formless ideas into glass equipment.

“I enjoy working with my hands,” said Smith, a soft-spoken Pennsylvania native who once intended to become a fish farmer. After graduating from Texas A&M University with a bachelor’s degree in aquaculture, he switched paths and decided to learn glassblowing. Smith has been a master glassblower for more than 20 years.

“With this, you have a good balance between the intellectual challenge of design work with a researcher,” he said. “Then, I turn around and work with my hands.”

Glass equipment is used in the vast majority of scientific experiments. While laboratories order standard beakers through major manufacturers, whenever researchers at Yale need a specialized piece of glass, they come to Smith’s shop, tucked in the back of SCL. Smith has blown glass for everything from routine chemistry experiments to the large particle collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland.

While Smith may seem to be indispensable, he is a rarity. Many universities, faced with less and less money for research support, must rely on outside glass shops that researchers say are no substitute for in-house custom glassblowers.

“Yale doesn’t understand how lucky they are to have him, probably,” said Patricia Brennan, a former Yale biology research assistant. “It’s a vanishing breed. It’s like a species going extinct. Nobody does this anymore.”

A DYING ART

Blowing glass used to be a skill so commonplace at laboratories that any researcher could count on getting custom-made glassware on campus. A century ago, chemists across the world blew their own glass: beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks and all, said Brennan, who has worked with Smith on biology research. Even 10 years ago, most research laboratories and universities had glassblowers to keep up with chemists’ endless demand for new glassware and repairs.

But budget cuts have forced many universities to close their glass shops in favor of big glass companies, most of which are based in southern New Jersey and can provide cheap, basic glassware and some custom work, said Curt Sexton, the president of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society. Ten years ago, the ASGS had close to 900 members; today they number about 530, Sexton said.

“They closed them because the arrogant masters that controlled the money didn’t see the need for them anymore,” he said. “It’s one of these things where the bean-counters sit there and look at it, and they don’t know what the guys do. It’s a shame.”

Sexton is a bald, white-bearded master glassblower with a genial Southern accent who works at the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina. He argues that in-house glassblowers are not only better for research but also cheaper than outside contractors. After all, like Smith, they can make house calls to labs to fix quickly and cheaply equipment that is too complicated to replace or send to a company, he said. A good in-house glassblower can build emergency equipment within a day and spend hours consulting with researchers in person, Yale researchers and other glassblowers said.

“With contractors, you don’t have that intimacy with the research that you can with glassblowers in-house,” said Mike Souza, the custom glassblower at Princeton. At one time, Souza said, Princeton had five glassblowers. Now it is just him.

Smith is one of the only two members of the ASGS in Connecticut. Although he is based at Yale, he also occasionally does work for Wesleyan University and even ships custom-made glass to researchers in locations as far-flung as California and England, he said. He is also one of the few university glassblowers who also teaches a graduate course in glassblowing, which accepts five students each semester.

“Daryl will sit down with students and make drawings and is more than happy to make changes,” said Patrick Vaccaro, a Yale chemistry professor and former director of undergraduate studies. “He’s got the perfect attitude.”

MANY APPLICATIONS

Smith plugged a hole in the chemical condenser with a small tube, knobbly with glass thread wound around it. He twitched it around the torch flame for a few seconds and held it up, one seamless piece.

“Cool, right?” he said.

Since he has been a glassblower, Smith said, customers have asked him to create increasingly small instruments — some as thin as a single millimeter — because measuring instruments have become sensitive enough that extremely small amounts of substances can be tested, allowing labs to waste less, he said. Smith’s customers have changed, too: More and more physicists, medical researchers, biologists and engineers have come to him with specialized projects.

Brennan, who wanted to see how male ducks forcibly copulate with female ducks, switched from a silicone model of a duck vagina to a glass model because it was both stronger and transparent, she said. She and her students brought diagrams of the twisted, curling duck vagina to Smith, who took her slightly odd request in stride. After a few prototypes and tweaks, Brennan got her wish: Using hidden cameras, her team filmed a male duck copulating with the glass model.

“We wouldn’t have been able to see that if it weren’t for the clear glass,” Brennan said.

Smith’s glass apparatuses have also played a major role in the research of Laura Niklason, a School of Medicine professor. Smith built Niklason a glass scaffolding that allows her team to harvest collagen from a pig vein and use it to grow a human blood vessel. Veins grown this way have a better chance of being accepted by a patient’s human body than vessels harvested from the patient’s own body, Smith said.

“It gives you a little jolt, feeling like you’re doing something sort of noble,” he said.

SAFE FROM BUDGET CUTS

Only a few years ago, Yale’s researchers had to do without a glassblower. After Smith’s predecessor left in 2004, University scientists and engineers relied on an outside contractor during the academic year.

“That was horrible,” Vaccaro said. “We didn’t have the ability to talk to the glassblowers. We had to make drawings of everything, and if it wasn’t right we had to go back. It really slowed down research everywhere.”

The faculty of the Chemistry Department met that year and resolved to bring a full-time glassblower to Yale as part of its effort to expand science at Yale. Smith was hired following a nationwide search.

He arrived in the summer of 2005 to reclaim the abandoned glassblowing shop in SCL. And if chemistry professors have their way, it will stay open — even through massive budget cuts like those of the past two years, Vaccaro said.

Some universities have made their glassblowing operations a priority: Sexton said he has heard of several universities opening new glass shops, including ones at the universities of Oklahoma and Alabama, both of which have constructed new chemistry research buildings in the past several years. And Princeton’s glassblower, Souza, said his sponsorship by multiple departments saved his job several years ago when six tenured chemistry professors left at the same time, taking 85 percent of the chemistry department’s funding with them.

But administrators at other universities have decided differently.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both rely on glassblowing contractors in Boston. Sexton can reel off the names of 10 universities in the eastern U.S. that have closed their shops in recent years because of budget concerns, he said.

The most recent one to close its glassblowing operation is the University of Florida, which has one of the largest chemistry departments in the country. Because the state of Florida cut the university’s funding by about 15 percent last fiscal year, the department had to lay off its single remaining glassblower less than a year ago, UF chemistry chairman Daniel Talham said.

Having to outsource glass work to outside contractors and other universities’ glassblowers is inconvenient, but UF’s chemists can meet most of their needs using commercially made glass, Talham said.

Still, he said, his department’s research has suffered.

“We would all be better off if we were able to maintain the glass shop,” Talham said.

Comments

  • theantiyale

    Thanks for the memories (Second time this week: Typewriter man as the first).

    1963, my first full-time job was in Sterling’s chem lab warehouse which received all the glassblower’s **handmade transparent intestines**.

    Two character’s ran the place and had for decades. One was 72 years old, had undyed auburn hair, smoked cigars, was as cranky as Scrooge, and at nights was Head Usher at the Shubert Theatre. A bachelor, he lived alone with 92-old-mother. He worked from a kind of indoor cupola perched above the entire first floor warehouse.

    The other man was 78 and a gentler type. Both men knew the location of every piece of the thousands of pieces of glass in the hundreds of cabinets in the warehouse by heart and were threfore irreplaceable (no one would tolerate that kind of crankiness in an employee today.)

    Their location-memories are probably on a computer disk now.

    My job was gofer.”Thirteenth drawer, third cabinet to the left, aisle 2″

    The place smelled like sawdust and ammonia.

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    [1]: http://theantiyale.blogspot.com “GOD (Genome’s Obscure Distributor)”