Two hundred and fifty million miles away, glistening on the Martian surface, sits a NASA rover fitted with a quartz cover made at Arizona State University’s Scientific Glassblowing Facility.
Most people probably don’t think much about where the glass tools in scientific research come from. While beakers and test tubes are mass-produced and easy to buy online, custom pieces – like the cover of a Mars rover – are created by an estimated 650 scientific glassblowers across the country at educational, industrial and government research facilities.
Dating back to the ancient Egyptians, scientific glassblowing has allowed researchers to advance technology and further their studies. Thomas Edison’s light bulb; Galileo’s thermometer; and early televisions, radios and computers were invented thanks to scientific glassblowing. Today, researchers use glass tools to collect air samples from volcanoes, precisely dilute chemical mixtures and mix gases in closed systems, among other activities.
Christine Roeger is a third-generation scientific glassblower who leads ASU’s facility. She is one of an increasing number of women entering the previously male-dominated field—bending the glass ceiling, so to speak.
“I belong to an American glassblowing society and there are a lot more women now than when I first started. People don’t think women can do scientific glassblowing, but the female glassblowers that I have met are really good glassblowers,” Roeger says.
Over her 26 years working at ASU, Roeger has created a wide variety of customized products. For example, she made a glass birdhouse with a valved chamber that allowed a researcher to collect and analyze a bird’s respiration.
Generations of glassblowers
Roeger was introduced to the trade early. Her father worked with her grandfather for a glassblowing shop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He went on to lead the ASU glassblowing facility starting in 1975.
“My dad always had a little shop at home. He would do side work and my sisters and I would go out to his shop and just watch him. When I was seven or eight, he would let us blow into the glass and blow big bubbles. Then when I was ten to twelve years old, he would have me helping him do basic cutting and getting jobs ready for him,” Roeger says.
In college, she realized she shared her family’s passion and talent for glassblowing. She switched her major from education to business and became a student worker alongside her dad in 1991.
“Glassblowing has always been in my life. I didn’t really know I wanted to be a glassblower until I got to college and actually experienced what my dad would do on a daily basis. I thought ‘This is really cool. Maybe this is something I want to do,’ and I did a four-year formal apprentice program,” Roeger says.
After graduation, she became a full-time worker in the facility, taking over in 2006 when her father retired. However, Roeger never lost her love for education. In addition to running ASU’s Scientific Glassblowing Facility, she also teaches a graduate chemistry course on the topic.
“This course gives students a basic idea of glassblowing techniques,” Roeger says. “We start simple with cutting and polishing, and by the end of the class, they are making a full-scale distillation apparatus.”
ASU’s house of glass
Located in the Bateman Physical Sciences Center on the Tempe campus, ASU’s Scientific Glassblowing Facility allows faculty and students from all schools and departments to request customized glassware for their research needs. This includes distillation glassware, custom reaction vessels and vacuum glassware, among other tools.
“I don’t make beakers or test tubes. I take an idea from a researcher here at ASU, then using raw material of Pyrex tubing or quartz tubing, I heat the glass in a flame and I can manipulate it to a shape or system needed,” Roeger says.
One common product Roeger makes is vacuum glassware.
“Researchers often need to collect samples with no air in them. I can make a glass vacuum system that hangs on a wall in their lab and is a tool to take out all the air in a sample. I can also add valves that allow researchers to put a specific gas like nitrogen into the sample,” she says.
No two pieces are the same—every order is custom-built. Roeger can even modify or repair pieces from catalogs, including test tubes. Modifications can include adding new valves, connecting new pieces and adding drain mechanisms. The facility is a cost-effective way for researchers to create customized glassware and repair pieces they already have.
“If you order from a catalog and you try to customize those pieces from a manufacturer, it is going to cost ridiculous amount of money,” Roeger explains. “A lot of times, repairing glass—repairing a bucket of glass—is way cheaper than buying all new parts, too.”
Roeger consults with researchers during daily office hours. Starting with nothing more than an idea, she can draw out a design with the customer and create the project. Service occurs on a first-come, first-served basis, with a typical turnaround time of a week-and-a-half to two weeks.
“If any researcher has an idea in their mind, I can make it for them,” Roeger says. “I have never had to say no to anybody.”