When Tracy Drier comes to Science Expeditions, the annual public open house held across the UW-Madison campus next weekend, he’ll arrive with a wealth of scientific glassblowing knowledge and, of course, his Wisconsin FireWagon.
The FireWagon is equipped with Drier’s tools of the trade: a delicate torch, a small cylinder of propane and a stock of borosilicate — glass that can tolerate heat and is chemically inert.
Drier frequently takes the portable lab-on-wheels around the city to demonstrate his passion: scientific glassblowing. But his real home base is his expansive shop in the lower level of the UW-Madison chemistry building.
Here, wearing special dark glasses and using a glassblowing technique called flame-working or lamp-working, Drier makes customized, highly specialized glassware used in cutting-edge research across campus: from chemistry to the departments of medical physics, geology, medicine, food science, molecular and civil engineering, material science, medical engineering, and more.
“Definitely a lot of people,” request glassware, he said. “And a lot of work.”
Drier’s craft is also showcased at the Madison Children’s Museum, where his Rube Goldberg-esque maze of scientific glassware hangs in a window called the “Sidewalk Surprise.” The piece can be viewed inside the museum’s free community concourse area and also from the street, and will be on display through summer.
Drier built the glass bubble columns that are a permanent feature in the “Wayback” area of the museum’s second floor, as well.
When he brings his FireWagon to the children’s museum, “the kids just love to watch — because it’s mesmerizing,” said museum exhibit designer and developer Nadia Niggli. “It almost feels like magic.”
“It’s such a specialized art,” she said. “He’s got this interesting crossover between art and science. And here (with his ‘Sidewalk Surprise’), he’s using these serious, very functional pieces in a new, more playful way. It has a little of the ‘mad scientist’ feel to it.”
Drier, for one, can’t believe his luck. As a scientific glassblower, he’s not just shaping glass, but inventing new processes.
“How awesome is that,” he said, as he lit a gas blower and aimed a flame at a glass tube while doing an interview in his shop.
“That’s why this job is so fantastic. This is a great job, and every day I give thanks.”
Associate Professor of Chemistry Zach Wickens, who came to UW-Madison last fall, was partly lured here because the university has its own resident glassblower. Harvard University, where Wickens previously was a postdoctoral research scholar, does not.
“It’s been amazing” to have a scientific glassblower on campus, said Wickens. Along with making a broad range of glassware for chemistry labs across the department, Drier “has been helping me get into a new area of chemistry that there isn’t commercial glassware for, where we’re using electricity to help run chemical reactions. And this lets us reduce chemical waste really dramatically.
“I’m actually working with Tracy to design new glassware that we can use to quickly test these ideas,” Wickens said. “With this glassware, we’re going to be able to ask questions we couldn’t otherwise ask, and develop reactions we otherwise couldn’t develop. So it’s pretty profound. I don’t know what I would be doing without him.”
Drier first got into glass as a kid, when his father brought home a how-to book from the library. It kindled an avid hobby for Drier, his father and his brother Tim.
Tim dove into scientific glassblowing right out of high school, enrolling at Salem Community College in Alloway, New Jersey — the only college in the country offering a two-year degree in scientific glassblowing — and then moved to jobs at Kodak and Dow Chemical.
Drier, instead, got a degree in paper engineering from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and went to work in the pulp and paper industry. At age 30, he quit and enrolled at Salem.
“Our family always kind of worked with our hands. Engineering is fascinating, but at the end of the day you don’t have much to show,” said Drier, 55. “With glassblowing, you have something at the end of the day that you’ve done.”
He came to UW-Madison in 2000 after working as a scientific glassblower at a chemical company in Milwaukee. Having a background in engineering isn’t essential, “but I think it’s what helped me get this job here,” he said.
“Breaking things down, critical thinking, is definitely a plus. But also, creativity is a plus,” Drier said. “You have a drawing, and it doesn’t matter how you get there. That’s one of the nice things about this — there’s more than one way to do it.”
Ambassador for the field
Drier has become something of an ambassador for the field of scientific glassblowing. He takes his Wisconsin FireWagon to schools and works with students from the glass program at UW-Madison. He also presents papers and shares tips with fellow members of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, or ASGS.
“I’ll share anything that can be useful to the next guy,” he said. At UW-Madison, “I’m one guy here. I don’t know everything. So having the network to say, ‘Hey, Jimmy — I’ve never done these platinum seals. Can you give me something to work with?’ There are a number of books, but nothing beats having someone who’s done it before.”
The approximately 500 ASGS members include about 200 who are professional scientific glassblowers, said Jim Cornell, ASGS office co-manager. He estimates about 40 or 50 work in universities. Drier is the only scientific glassblower employed at UW-Madison.
The society’s membership also includes students, international members, independent glassblowers and even those who create “functional art” — glass paraphernalia that’s useful in a day when the legalization of medical marijuana is becoming more commonplace.
Practice and patience
On the science end of things, “there are not enough scientific glassblowers in this world,” said Drier, who makes the job look easy. That’s mainly thanks to “practice, practice, practice.”
“That would be the thing — do you have patience? Because this thing will eat you alive if you don’t,” he said.
“Glass breaks. For people watching, I would imagine it’s like watching paint dry. It’s a very slow process. Each of the steps is hand-work, and it does not go fast.”
But Drier also loves the puzzles he must solve to turn a researcher’s ideas and diagrams into a working piece of the lab.
“One of the beautiful things with this job, specifically, is the collaboration with the scientists,” he said. “That’s some serious science these guys are doing, state of the art, and I get to work with them. They tell me about it, and it’s exciting for me.”
At the West Side home he shares with wife Amy Anderson, Drier has a shop in his garage for his main hobby: more glassblowing.
“Honestly, what I do here helps me with what I do at home, and what I do at home helps me here,” he said.
“This is the greatest job I’ve ever had. I can’t say enough about it,” Drier said. “And I think everybody should be a scientific glassblower.”