Chief scientific glass blower at the University of York, Abigail developed a love of working with glass whilst studying for her arts degree.
Some people know that they want to work in science right away; others go on a journey. Abigail tells us, in her own words, about her journey.
A scientific glassblower is someone who manufactures laboratory equipment in glass, using glass rods, tubing and prefabricated components, but it is also much more than that. It’s the satisfaction of taking these bits of rod, tubing and components and creating something not only useful, but often highly specialised. And it doesn’t have to be all big and fancy to be rewarding.
Scientific glassblowing is a profession which constantly provides challenges, from simply making something for the first time, developing a new piece of equipment, or adapting an existing one. You just never know what you are going to be asked to make, which for me only makes it more interesting.
For example, one student recently came to me for help, as she was having difficulties removing the gel she had made from the glass container without it falling apart. She asked if I could make something like a cake tin, where the bottom was removable so she could push the gel out in one piece.
The final design that I made for her was really very simple, but knowing that you have created and designed something that has not only overcome a problem, but will enable research to develop and continue is a brilliant feeling, and probably the best thing about my job.
If you had asked me when I was a child ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up’ I would have said a Red Coat at Butlins! As a teenager I wanted to be a dancer, and then nursery school teacher. Truth is, I have never really known what I wanted to do. When I was seventeen I seemed to be surrounded by people who already knew what career path they wanted to take, or what subject they wanted to study at university, but I didn’t feel ready to make that decision.
My journey to becoming a scientific glassblower started out in the hospitality trade, where I worked in a cafe. I probably spent most of the 2 years there running around like a headless chicken – and loved every minute of it. I learnt that I like being busy.
When I wasn’t working at the café, my main hobby was ceramics. I was lucky enough to have my own kiln, and live with a mum and stepdad who didn’t mind me taking over the shed or garage with my ceramic creations and running up the electricity bill!
I enrolled on an art and design foundation course part-time, put together a portfolio of my work and got accepted into Sunderland University to study a BA (Hons) in glass, architectural glass and ceramics.
It was during this degree that I developed a love of working with glass, and I specialised in using recycled glass for my final project. I finished my degree in 2006, and, in the absence of any glass related jobs, I applied for a job as a trainee milliner. I enjoyed the job, but started to feel like I needed a new challenge. That’s when I saw the advert for a trainee scientific glassblower at the University of York.
Into the profession
I attended the interview with very little idea of what being a scientific glassblower entailed, though as soon as I was given a demonstration, I just knew it was what I wanted to do. Luckily, I got the job and four and half years later, I passed my final exams with distinction.
Glassblowing sounds fun and exciting, and it is both of those things, but it can also be dangerous. You spend most of your day 30 centimetres away from a ridiculously hot flame, melting glass, which is also hot and stays hot for a lot longer than you think it will, and when it’s not hot, it’s usually sharp. Glassblowing isn’t for everyone!
Reflections on the professional journey
Looking back over my employment history, one of the things that stands out is that I have always been attracted to practical or creative jobs. I think of myself as having quite a varied path to becoming a scientific glassblower, but then again, I’m not entirely sure what the usual path would be. When I’m asked what job I do, most people have never heard it, and are amazed when I explain it to them.
Your journey through higher education and into employment is exactly that – a journey. It doesn’t matter if you take a few wrong turns or detours along the way, enjoy them! The road you are destined for could be just around the next corner.
Interview by Anu Daniel
Images © Anne Purkiss / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published June 2014