“Filling in the Gap Between Beakers and Bongs”

A few weeks ago, ANDesign visited the University of Texas, Austin to check out potential campuses for our very own Jacquelyn Leyva. In the Robert A. Welch Hall of Chemistry, we stumbled upon a peculiar lab. The university had its own glassblowing studio. Unlike most glassblowers, they don’t make art or paraphernalia. Instead, they create custom scientific glass beakers, vials and vessels for specialized scientific projects.

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Andrew in front of the Robert A. Welch Hall

The art of glass blowing dates back thousands of years. Although it was originally valued as a decorative object, the material is now indispensible to the sciences, crucial for groundbreaking experiments.We spoke to the two resident glassblowers, Adam V. Kennedy and Michael J. Ronalter to get a better insight on how they got into working with glass and insight into their craft.

Adam Kennedy

Michael Ronalter

What inspired you to begin working with glass?

Adam Kennedy: I was living a few blocks away from the Pittsburgh Glass Center and took an introductory flameworking class on a whim because my wife (girlfriend at the time) had taken some glassblowing classes and was doing an internship at the office of the PGC. I had just graduated with a history degree and had no job or real plans.

Michael Ronalter:  I have always liked glass as a material. It is amazing, seductive. Then it dawned on me that glass can be manipulated as a liquid and people do that!

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Adam Kennedy at work

How’d you get into it? What age? 

AK: I was 22.

MR: While talking with friends I mentioned I wanted to be a glass blower. One replied that she knew Allen, a glass blower, at the University of Connecticut. I was thirty years old at the time.

 

How were you exposed to blowing scientific glass?

AK: One of the classes I took was taught by a very talented artist who is also a scientific glassblower, Sally Prasch. That exposed me to the field of scientific glass. Following that, I moved back home to New Orleans and started talking to Jack Korfhage, a scientific glassblower, in Baton Rouge. He set me straight and told me the best path for doing this as a career was to go to Salem Community College in New Jersey and to become a member of the American Scientific Glassblower’s Society. I did both.

MR: I met Allen in his glass shop on campus. I really was not aware of the complexity, variety and scale of scientific glassware other than test tubes and beakers.

 

What glass do you repair? Mostly scientific instruments? Where do they come from? University or elsewhere?

AK: We repair all sorts of apparatus for the university. Our biggest customers are within the chemistry department, but we do work from Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, Biology, Pharmacy, Geology, Marine Sciences, and many others. We also do a small amount of repair and fabrication for local business as well work for former grads and faculty who have moved elsewhere.

MR:  We work mostly with borosilicate and quartz glass. We repair, fabricate and modify apparatus for the University of Texas at Austin. Our home is in the Welch Chemistry building. We accommodate off campus requests, as well as other state colleges and agencies. IMG_7884   Who commissions the custom work? What do they need custom glass for?

AK: The researchers ask for projects with input from us. Some people have an exact idea of what they need while others just have a concept of what they want. Sometimes we can see what the researchers are doing and offer suggestions that improve safety and efficiency. There are all sorts of apparatus that people only need for one very specific use, and these items cannot be found in a catalog. Often times, people have an item from a catalog and would like it modified.

 

How would someone get into glass work? Specifically creating scientific glass pieces? Are there apprenticeships?

AK: There aren’t many formal apprenticeships that I know. As a wise man once told me, “Go to Salem, and join the American Scientific Glassblowers Society.”

MR: My coworker Adam and I attended Salem Community College in Southern New Jersey. They offer artistic and technical glass blowing courses. Apprenticeships in the traditional sense do happen, but I think they are less common lately. But Adam did start at the U.T. as an apprentice. There are companies the produce a full line of conventional and custom apparatus. Many small “Mom and Pop” and production glass shops still exist.

 

Before University of Texas, where were you working?

AK: I attended Salem Community College for two years to get a degree in scientific glass technology. I worked at a couple small shops while there. Before that, my career path was headed towards work in a library. I worked in Public Libraries in Pittsburgh and the University of New Orleans Library. After Salem, I was fortunate enough to get a job with Michael Ronalter, who is retiring on Friday, at the University of Texas. I’ve been here for 4 years.

MR: After Salem Community College I was lucky to obtain  an apprenticeship at the University of Illinois, Champaign, Urbana. I then worked for a high purity, anhydrous inorganic chemical company, A.A.P.L. Now a subsidiary of Sigma Aldrich. I am currently At U.T. Austin.

What labs use your glass? What do they use them for?

MR: We are a large university with a vast spectrum of research. We provide services for all… Chemistry- organic and inorganic, pharmacy, aerospace, petroleum and chemical engineering, physics, biology, geology and then some.

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What do you like most about working with glass and your profession in general?

AK: I like the problem solving aspect of it as well as the challenge. I also love being a part of the science. You never know what you’ll be able to contribute to.

MR: Again glass is a most amazing substance. Then you find out you can manipulate it and your hooked and seduced. What we can do and what can be done utilizing the properties of glass hot or cold will drop your jaw.  I have worked glass for thirty years. I love my job and craft. Glass blowing has been most occupationally rewarding. Go to work? I don’t think I’ve done that. A glass blower may not know what they are contributing to. Cures for disease, new compounds, semiconductors, nanotechnology. It’s a long list. Designing scientific glassware is critical. Apparatus is subjected vacuum, pressure, heat, cold, some nasty chemicals and reactions. Researchers may use air sensitive compounds. You cannot have a pin hole in glassware you fabricated or repaired. Adam and I have a phrase due to the recreational apparatus trade, “we are filling in the gap between beakers and bongs.”

A video of the two created by the College of Natural Sciences at U.T. Austin

 

Countless scientific apparatus have been molded by these two. There’s no telling how many of their handcrafted beakers, vials and other apparatus have had a hand in expanding the boundaries of human knowledge.

Tomorrow (August 29, 2014) Michael will be retiring from the University. Thanks to his craftsmanship, he is without a doubt an unsung hero of science

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