When you’re working with liquid helium at temperatures hovering around 1.38 degrees Kelvin, you can’t simply order the necessary supplies – you have to make them.
The laboratory group of Wolfgang J. “Jim” Choyke, research professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, uses a dewar – or flask – made from custom-blown glass and metal fashioned in the glass and machine shops for the task, which Choyke calls “absolutely essential for what we do.”
It’s also cost-effective. Liquid helium is expensive, and Choyke estimates that the custom-made dewars allow his group to conduct its research using roughly one-fifth what they would have to use with anything that is commercially available.
“If you’re going to do something new, you’re going to have to build it yourself. If you can buy it in a store, it’s not research,” he says.
Enter Lori Neu, the shop’s scientific glass blower. Neu creates and repairs supplies for Choyke and other faculty members according to their specific needs. Often they sit down together to collaborate; Neu produces the item, and if it doesn’t work the way the faculty needs it to, they modify the original design until it does.
She also repairs, for pennies, items that cost hundreds of dollars new. In one case, for example, Neu put a $1 connection on a piece of glassware that costs up to $800 if purchased commercially.
“I would encourage people to really make use of that,” says Choyke, who has collaborated with Neu on several ideas.
Neu estimates that about 80 percent of the people who consult with her are graduate students, and 20 percent are faculty – with the occasional undergraduate thrown in for good measure. Their ideas arrive in various states of formation, so Neu discusses some of the details she needs to know: Will the piece be under pressure? Will a microscope or a laser go through it? From there, she moves forward with the execution of the design.
“What I do is [acting as] more of a glass architect,” she says. “I’ve had the privilege of hearing some amazing research stories of what’s going on here on campus.”
Choyke considers collaboration with the glass shop to be an essential part of his students’ educational experience – that they must learn to do things themselves to function as a true experimental group.
“My style is to turn out useful people in the end,” he says. “You can’t really do new research without those kinds of facilities. They are essential.”
In addition to creating and repairing pieces, Neu also teaches a semester-long class in her room, four students at a time. That way, graduate students can learn for themselves how to repair their own glasswork if they end up in a job at a university without a professional scientific glass blower.
She also hopes the class inspires the kind of new designs that will assist the students in their work.
“I think and I hope that it helps them think outside the box on their next research assignment,” she says.