These Glassblowers Help Enable the Future of Science

Scientific glassblowing: Where art meets science.

May 23, 2022
These Glassblowers Help Enable the Future of Science | Scientific glassblowing: Where art meets science.

Switch on the lightbulb when you walk into the house. Peer at the cosmos through the curved lens of a space telescope. Fill a laboratory flask with just the right amount of water. What do all these actions have in common? None of them would be possible without one of the most unique art-science partnerships – the role of glassblowing in scientific exploration and discovery.

A history of cooperation
Discover Magazine provides the back story; glassblowing is an age-old art, dating back to Ancient Egyptian beads and tiles. However, its role in science began around the Renaissance era, when astronomers commissioned artisans to craft the precise curvatures for telescope lenses needed to skygaze. 

From that point in history, glassblowers’ skills and talents became indispensable to the great march of progress, science, and technology. Even the famous Thomas Edison employed glassblowers to make the distinct bulb shapes for his lightbulb experiments.

Neal Korfhage, a scientific glassblower for the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee sheds light on the partnership. “Scientific glassblowing’s heyday was post-World War II, when every chemical firm and research industry had a glassblower — or multiple glassblowers. Chemical behemoths] Dow and DuPont used to have a whole team of glassblowers working for their scientists,” he shares.

But, since then the trade has become rarer with each passing year, and only a few hundred tradesmen remain today, with Salem Community College in New Jersey the only school still teaching the skill.

A center of “interaction and camaraderie” at Cornell
While many labs rely on commercial glass production, there are some that still have their own scientific glassworking facilities on site. 

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The Cornell Chronicle shares Karl Termini’s story. Termini, Cornell University’s scientific glassblower, describes himself as more of a craftsman than an artist. Although his job “sometimes stumbles into art,” his work is more about functionality than appearance. “This isn’t about what it looks like, but about what it does.” he elaborates.

But just because his pieces are functional, doesn’t mean they aren’t unique. In addition to repairing broken materials, Termini also designs one-of-a-kind glassware for his clients at Cornell.

Kaitlyn MacMillan, a chemistry graduate student, owes her research to Termini’s craftsmanship. She described Termini’s impact. “The success of my project depended on the use of a specialized solid-addition funnel that didn’t exist in the catalogs. It is cool to think that I am the only person in the world doing this type of work because I am using custom-made glassware handcrafted by Karl.” 

Termini has the chance to help up to 30 researchers a day. In addition to his creations and repairs, he also puts in gas lines and vacuum systems. But Termini is most proud of one additional role he fulfills, that isn’t included in his job description. 

“I’m kind of like a hairdresser or a bartender,” he says. His glass shop, which is a popular hangout and a “center of interaction and camaraderie,” is always stocked with donuts for visitors who want to borrow Termini’s ear to problem-solve glassblowing solutions, to learn about the glassblowing process or just to chat.

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Glass arteries and aneurysms
Steve Anderson also has the chance to exercise his creativity and problem-solve at work. He has been the Mayo Clinic’s glassblower for two decades, reports Post Bulletin. He is also one of only three scientific glassblowers to have ever attended to Mayo Clinic’s labs since the Mayo glass shop opened in 1921. 

Anderson became interested in scientific glassblowing after reading an article about “odd jobs” in the St. Paul Pioneer Press back when he was in high school. 

Intrigued, he met with the then-current Mayo glassblower, Gordon Smith, who advised him to attend Salem College’s program. After graduating, Anderson kept in touch with Smith, and took over the reins when Smith retired in 1999.

At Mayo Clinic, one of the most interesting parts of Anderson’s job is forming models of organs, including glass brain aneurysms and glass recreations of arteries and veins (to allow students to practice placing stents). He’s even recreated the famous DNA double helix– in glass form.

But, of all his creations, Anderson is most proud of his glass blown tissue bath. Such baths are used to control the temperature and environment of in-vitro tissues, so they can be studied. 

“It’s almost a little bit artistic plus scientific. It’s sculpting plus glassblowing.” Anderson says about his work.  And even though he’s been at it for decades, Anderson still finds his work fresh and exciting, “It’s always challenging. Everything I do still has a bit of excitement to it.”

Korfhage from University of Wisconsin agrees. He tells Discover Magazine, “You can build whatever kind of system you want. The only limit to your imagination is what you want to accomplish in science … and your skill.”

Just like with science and discovery, when it comes to scientific glassblowing, the sky’s the limit.

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Adina is a writer who believes in the transformative power of words. She understands that everyone has a valuable story to tell. Adina’s goal is to learn new things every day and share her discoveries with others.