RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some cutting-edge science today relies on a centuries-old art - glassblowing. Researchers in chemistry, physics and medicine sometimes need special glass tools for complex experiments, so they often sit down with a glassblower to sketch out designs. A school in New Jersey is trying to keep that tradition going with the country's only degree program in scientific glassblowing. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Out among the corn and soybean fields of southern New Jersey, there's a studio specializing in one of the most popular materials in a research lab.
DENNIS BRIENING: It's clear. You can see what the experiments are doing. It holds no chemical history.
WANG: Dennis Briening leads the scientific glassblowing program here at Salem Community College.
BRIENING: And it can be shaped into any form you like. So whatever your imagination is, it can be made.
WANG: And his students are learning how to make those tools for research universities and glass manufacturers right through these doors.
BRIENING: Come on in (laughter).
WANG: Across a row of glowing furnaces, about a dozen students hover over bright flames at their workbenches as they blow into glass tubes. Briening lights a torch himself, then holds a thin, hollow glass tube over the fire.
BRIENING: So we're going to preheat at same time we're heating. And I like to see the orange coming off the flame. And that indicates how hot the glass is.
WANG: How hot is this flame?
BRIENING: That flame is right around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
WANG: That's hot enough for the glass to bend like rubbery taffy. Briening slowly twists that glass tube into a candy cane shape. Then it morphs into a snake coil that looks machine-made. This is a craft with exacting requirements from scientists. Any mistakes in the glass could cause accidents and ruin an experiment.
BRIENING: I always say a millimeter to a glassblower is a mile. Myself and a lot of glassblowers have made things where we have to hold one-thousandth of an inch in tolerance.
WANG: That's thinner than human hair, which is about two- to three-thousandths of an inch. Besides patience with blueprints, professors here are teaching students how to get along with their tools.
KATIE SEVERANCE: That was a backfire for sure. Is this torch, like, really angry?
WANG: Katie Severance graduated with an associate degree from the program and now teaches classes here, where she says students quickly catch what some call the glass bug.
SEVERANCE: Glass as a material is so captivating. It starts as a solid. You put it in fire. Everybody loves fire. and then it melts, and it's a liquid. And it's like a beautiful dance, working with the material, getting to know it.
NEIL MESSINGER: I'm working on the shape called a yo-yo.
WANG: Neil Messinger is spinning a glass bottle on a rotating glass lathe. A rubber blow hose sticks out of the corner of his mouth. He gently pushes air through glass that he's heating up with the blow torch he's gripping in his right hand.
MESSINGER: It's fulfilling to me in the sense that I'm using my two hands to create something. I just love tangible objects, being able to say and hold something like, I made this.
WANG: Messinger got a degree in advertising before joining the program. In between classes here, he's already working for a company that makes glass parts used for gas chromatography. But he says he eventually wants to make glass tools for labs working on cancer research.
MESSINGER: My mother, she had a bout with breast cancer, and I just don't want people to have to go through that. I feel like in this day and age, cancer is something that shouldn't be heard of.
WANG: One day, he hopes, cancer patients won't have to sit through radiation. And after he graduates in the spring, he says, maybe his scientific glassblowing can play some small part in making that day come sooner.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Alloway, N.J.
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