Glassblower helps shape first-rate research

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- The second floor of Frick Chemical Laboratory is full of graduate students in white lab coats carefully monitoring intricate webs of glass tubes filled with the compounds they are studying.

In the building next door, ensconced in a room cluttered with a dozen half-finished glass creations, Michael Souza wields a torch with flames dancing from it, custom making by hand many of the glass tubes used in these experiments.

Michael Souza, Princeton's only scientific glassblower  

Michael Souza, Princeton's only scientific glassblower, has created many highly complex pieces to assist Princeton scientists in their research.


Souza is the University's only scientific glassblower, and his deft hands and quick mind have made him essential not just to Princeton's chemists, but to scientists all over campus.

"He makes the most incredibly complicated glass instruments with the barest of instructions," said Stephanie Greene, the department manager for chemistry. "His creativity and understanding of very complex scientific experiments is amazing."

Souza's office in Hoyt Chemical Laboratory is a labyrinth of half-formed glass tubes where two open flames wait to be used. Sketches and scientific calculations for upcoming projects litter the tables. Amid them all is a scruffy bear of a man who, when he isn't hunched over his equipment, is quick with a pun or a witty turn of phrase.

"His sense of humor is off the charts," said Kirsten Erwin, undergraduate administrator in the chemistry department. So too is his agility with a flame that gets up to 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

But fashioning the long, thin tubes of glass into tools for complex experiments takes more than just nimble hands. "A lot of researchers who come in here have no sense of how glass can be fabricated or worked, so we fill in that area for them," Souza said. "They tell us what they'd like to achieve and we make them something."

Souza has created some highly complex pieces for Stephen Forrest, the James McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Electrical Engineering, that helped his department develop a new way of growing organic materials.

"When you design a new experiment, very often you need a special- ized piece of glassware that you can't buy off the shelf," Forrest said. "A good glassblower -- and Mike is one -- will listen to you and tell you how to do what you want to do better. You go to him with a half-baked idea, and he can fully bake it for you."

Having Souza's glassblowing skills at the department's disposal is essential to doing first-rate research, Forrest said. "So much of science has to do with developing a new instrument," he explained. "If you have a new instrument, you have a new measurement. If you have a new measurement, you can make a new discovery."

Souza shapes glass for nearly all of the research groups on campus, including -- in addition to chemistry -- physics, mechanical and aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, geosciences, the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab and even the art department. Professors at other universities also call on him; he has made glassware for Rutgers University, the University of Pennsylvania and Rider University as well as the U.S. Department of Energy.

Souza got involved in glassblowing as a teenager, when he had a summer job at a company in Evanston, Ill., where his father worked as foreman of a glassblowing shop. Souza was put to work painting a huge fence, but "on rainy days I had to come inside and do something else, so I started doing glassblowing." Thus began a 30-year career that included stints at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and private glass shops before Souza came to Princeton in 1992. He currently serves as the president of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society.

One of Souza's areas of expertise is working with aluminosilicate, a rare and expensive glass that is difficult to manipulate. "Mike has learned how to work with exotic glasses that not many glassblowers can handle," said William Happer, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics, who has collaborated on several projects with Souza using the glass. "You need to work it at a much higher temperature, and if you make the slightest slip, you ruin the piece you're working on."

Souza used aluminosilicate to help Happer and several colleagues invent a new way to use polarized gases to enhance the information yielded by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. The new method -- which gives patients a nonradioactive gas to inhale while an MRI machine takes a picture of their lungs -- allows doctors to investigate patients' lungs in a way that is far safer for the patients and provides a much better picture than existing technology. Souza created the delicate containers made of aluminosilicate that are required to prepare the gas. The new method currently is being used in clinical trials, Happer said.

"Mike is unusual in being willing to try almost anything," Happer said. "He's very innovative, and that's what you want at a university. He's got that creative spark that we look for."

Michael Romalis, assistant professor of physics, also uses alumino- silicate in many of his experiments. "One of the reasons for my decision to come to Princeton was that I knew that I could rely on Mike's exceptional skills," Romalis said. "What sets him apart is his persistence. He does not shy away from hard projects; in fact, he enjoys them. I think many projects that we work on would not have been possible without his skills."

Philip Murray, who has been learning glassblowing in England, spent a week this summer studying with Souza as part of a fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. "Mike was described to me as the guru of everything that has to do with glassblowing," Murray explained.

Souza spent much of their time together demonstrating how to use aluminosilicate. Murray found the glass rather challenging.

"Where's your sample?" Souza asked him.

"You mean the abomination?" Murray replied.

"One tiny mistake and you start getting reboil," Souza explained as he pointed out the tiny bubbles that had formed where the glass was joined.

"This glass is incredibly unforgiving," Murray noted, shaking his head. "There are very few places in the world where I could get this kind of teaching."

Later, Souza donned gloves and safety glasses to shape a thin tube of glass held in a lathe. He positioned the burner so that its roaring flames would leap over the glass, turning the lathe's wheel in one direction to stretch the glass, then the other way to gather in the glass and form a ball. The torch is "a paint brush," Souza said. "The glass is like a canvas."


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