Inside the Lederle Graduate Research Center on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, you’ll find research labs, conference rooms, classroom, and offices. These college mainstays support the many departments that make up the College of Natural Sciences.

What you may not expect to find is a glassblowing studio, but the studio plays an important part in supporting the research work done at UMass.  Inside the Scientific Glassblowing Lab, master glassblower Sally Prasch blends scientific precision with artist flair—and a lot of heat—to craft custom scientific instruments.

Prasch works directly with researchers and labs to fix, design, and create scientific instruments that meet their instructional and research needs. Producer Dave Fraser visits glassblowing studio to see some of these specialty scientific instruments come to life.  

This story originally aired on February 24, 2020.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Inside the Lederle Graduate Research Center on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, you’d expect to find research laboratories, conference rooms, classes and offices, all supporting the many departments within the College of Natural Sciences.

But what you might not expect to find is a glassblowing studio. As producer Dave Fraser explains, this glass studio plays an integral part of the research work being done on campus.

Sally Prasch, Master Glassblower: I like it because you can make anything with glass. You can absolutely anything with glass.

Here, I’m a scientific glassblower and what that means is I create things like you see on late night TV, the mad scientist and all the little things going up and down. Well, those scientists need certain things, made. Some things you can buy out of a catalog, some things have never been made before. So that’s what I’m here for, is to create those things for them and also to repair things that they have broken.

A scientific glassblower, we’re working with specific types of glasses and making specific things, and to get it really precise. So I usually tell people, you know, plus minus five millimeters. I don’t design it. They design it pretty much. I might have some influence on their design, but it’s their design.

We have different sizes of flames and different sizes of torches depending on what we’re working on. We also have glassblowing lathes that are similar to a wood lathe or a metal lathe that rotate the glass for us. We have grinding wheels, we have cutoff saws so we can drill holes and in glass, all different kinds of things that we can do with glass here.

So, I have this hose hooked up to the end of the tube and the other end of the tube plugged up. And so I can blow into this and get the glass to expand.

And if you think of of science and you think of glass, they’re kind of intermixed. Without the glass, you can’t do the science. And so much has been made from glass.

You think, “oh, look, we’re looking through lenses.” That’s glass. You look at semiconductors, that’s glass. You know, it’s it’s changing as science changes, but glass is always a part of it.

So, you think of glass as a very stiff, hard substance, but it can also be flexible. We have this coil here, which you can see it’s pretty flexible to show how glass is flexible.

Now, we would use that maybe in something like this. This is a certain type of condenser. This coil inside of here will actually flex just slightly inside of this.

So, we have some independent studies this semester that are coming in. We have an art student coming in,  and also a science student coming in. Starting next fall, we’re going to be offering classes in this and we’ll also have some weekend workshops.

That’s looking really good. Good job.

Khatcher Margossian, UMass Amherst Grad Student: So, right now, I’m working on making a glass to metal seal. Glass and metal are different materials, they have different properties. But by heating them up and fusing them together, you can create airtight and watertight seals between the two materials.

The reason I’m doing this is because I’m designing an instrument that employs the two materials to make measurements that haven’t been made before.

Sally Curcio, UMass Amherst Grad Student: I wanted to learn glass for a long time, so when I enrolled in the program, I asked if I could take glass and the chemistry department was — and Sally — were kind enough to let me do an independent study.

It has led to creating my own glass cities and other shapes and thinking of glass and a whole new way. I just continue to learn how far I can go with it.