8:49 a.m., Feb. 4, 2009----When Doug Nixon, glass technologist at the University of Delaware, recently hosted a tour for a group of students from Salem Community College (SCC) in New Jersey, he was simply paying back a long-overdue debt.
Dennis Briening, coordinator of the Glass Center at SCC, was the inspiration for Nixon's interest in glass blowing more than 30 years ago, when Nixon watched Briening making ornamental pieces in his garage.
Nixon then went on to receive his own training in scientific glass technology at SCC, the only school in the U.S. offering a certification program as well as an accredited two-year degree in this subject.
For the past 20 years, Nixon has run the Scientific Glassblowing Shop at UD, which is housed in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry but serves the entire campus. He has completed projects for marine studies, engineering, plant and soil sciences and biology, as well as the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and the Center for Composite Materials.
“You can get a really good idea of the level of scientific research that goes on at a university by seeing whether or not they have their own glass-blower,” Nixon says. “Only the larger programs have this capability in-house.”
According to Klaus Theopold, professor and chairperson of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UD, it's an important capability. “For centuries, advances in chemistry have depended on the unique properties of glass,” he says. “Being resistant to attack by nearly all chemical substances and also transparent -- thus allowing direct visual observation of changes as a reaction proceeds -- makes glass the perfect container for studying chemical reactions.”
“Of course,” Theopold continues, “there is one major drawback, and that is the tendency for glass to break easily. Enter our 'glassblower,' an artisan who fashions complicated pieces of scientific apparatus from glass. Whether we need a new vacuum manifold made or a broken reaction flask fixed, our in-house glassblower can do it all. With 150 graduate students and many undergraduates doing research, Doug Nixon is one of our busiest staff members. The business of chemistry and biochemistry would simply be impossible without him.”
Nixon's primary job is to fabricate, modify and repair scientific apparatus and instruments. The fabrication part of his job is all custom work, with the pieces tailored to the requirements of specific research protocols. He works from graphic and verbal input provided by the faculty and grad students conducting the research. The sketches he starts with range from simple pencil drawings to more elaborate computer-generated concepts.
“Sometimes I have to sit and stare at a basic sketch for a while just to get an idea of where to start,” Nixon says. “Then I work from the inside out and draw up something that I think will work.”
Apparently, Nixon is quite good at creating pieces that work. “I couldn't possibly perform any of my research if it wasn't for Doug's help,” says Wes Monillas, a doctoral candidate in chemistry. “I use a lot of very specialized glassware that would be prohibitively expensive or downright impossible to purchase. With Doug's help I can get the pieces I need, quickly and easily.”
The tools of Nixon's trade range from such simple household supplies as tape, string, wire and adhesives to band saws, sanders, lathes, torches and ovens. His custom-designed shop in the basement of Brown Laboratory, which was renovated just two years ago, also includes a microscope to help him locate flaws in glass and a polariscope, which shows invisible strain patterns under polarized light.
Nixon not only works in glass but also serves as a general resource on the topic. He runs an informative Web site that answers commonly asked questions and directs users to valuable outside resources, such as the American Scientific Glassblowers Society (ASGS). He also maintains a technical and material library to assist faculty, staff, and students with locating needed information, products, and parts. In addition, he serves as an important safety resource with regard to the safe handling, cleaning, use, and disposal of glass.
For Nixon, the best part of his job is “not knowing what's going to come through the door on any given day.” And sometimes, what comes through the door isn't even scientific in nature. In the past, he was called on to repair an antique barometer owned by then-president David Roselle. More recently, he fabricated some custom glass vessels for use as props in the UD production of the Moliere satire “The Imaginary Invalid.”
“I try to solve most problems that come through the door,” Nixon says. “If I don't know the answers myself, I at least try to figure out where to get them.”
He is also philosophical about his trade. “There are different ways to approach just about every job,” he says. “I just try to figure out the most efficient way to get it done.”
Article by Diane Kukich
Photos by Ambre Alexander