Researchers at universities and laboratories across the country are conducting important work to find the answers to life's most complicated health, engineering and science questions.
Key tools needed to conduct those experiments can only be made by scientific glassblowers. So these researchers often turn to the only college in the country that offers a degree program in scientific glassblowing: Salem Community College in New Jersey.
"It's a unique program," said Dennis Briening, the scientific glass technology instructional chair at the college. "We train students to do basic engineering and to fabricate apparatus. We're designing and consulting with chemical engineers so students learn organic chemistry … the hands-on skills are very important for learning to make the apparatus, and hopefully they learn to talk to chemists and engineers."
The South Jersey area always had a skill-based glassblowing industry, going back centuries, Briening said, and Salem stepped in to fill that role of educating students in the art of shaping glass materials and parts like beakers and tubes.
"Any of the students who would like employment are employed. Some students take the skills and use it for artistic purposes, but a lot of students already have four-year degrees or graduate degrees," he said. "They decide to become glass technologists because it involves designing and engineering and the time and skill needed to fabricate. And you not only get to work with chemists and engineers, but you get to go back in the laboratory and create fun and intricate objects."
That's the beauty of glass, he said, adding that it's clear, chemically inert and one of the only materials that can be manipulated into any form.
But there are relatively few people who work in the scientific glassblowing industry -- about 500 today. Briening expects to have 66 students in the program this fall, whereas four years ago the program had 22 students. His graduates go on to work at companies like General Electric or research institutions like Yale University or California Institute of Technology.
Kiva Ford, the scientific glass technologist at University of Notre Dame, is a Salem graduate and was previously perhaps the last full-time glass technologist employed by an American pharmaceutical company. Prior to joining Notre Dame three years ago, Ford worked for Roche, also known as the company where Valium was invented, for nine years before being laid off.
"It's a small industry. We're all members of the American Scientific Glassblower Society, and there's only about a few hundred of us," Ford said. "After a while it feels like a family reunion."
That's how Ford learned of the job at Notre Dame, through his fellow glass technologists. Briening said it's not unusual to have universities and companies calling Salem looking for a new glass tech.
Many companies are outsourcing or only hiring part-time employees to create their glass objects, Ford said, adding that every company and university used to employ three to four glassblowers full time. When the glassblower at California State University in Los Angeles retired a year ago, the shop he'd run shut down after 30 years, the Los Angeles Times reported in an article detailing the difficult search to replace the retiring glassblower at the California Institute of Technology.
"It's a pretty unique skill and Salem is a really great school," Ford said. "It sets you up with the tools you need to thrive in this industry, but it doesn't give you everything. I learned a lot of this stuff on the job, but Salem allowed me to understand that stuff."
Ford said he's made objects that are as tiny as a grain of sand and as large as being barely big enough to fit around his arms.
"I'm working on a project here now that's interesting involving particle detectors for detecting the Higgs boson particle," he said. "There were also some great projects I worked on in pharmaceuticals like designing a reactor … that ended up making small batches of a cancer drug 10 times faster. Everybody at the lab was really excited and it really hit me, the impact of that. Sometimes I feel like a cog in the wheel and the scientists were like, 'You should be proud of this, it's going into humans next week.' That's really touching."
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