At Brock University, the unique and highly skilled trade of scientific glassblowing recently changed hands from father to son. Jordan VanDenhoff spends his days building custom glassware for researchers and repairing damaged lab equipment like flasks and test tubes. Working as part of technical services in the faculty of mathematics and science, he often has visitors dropping in to his glassblowing shop, either to make a request or just to say hi.
“When a student or professor is trying to build something, talking to someone on the phone and corresponding through email is just not the same as coming down here and being able to explain in person,” he says. “We come up with a product that works for them.”
Mr. VanDenhoff started training for the role, whether he knew it or not, when he was just seven years old – “horsing around with dad” is how he puts it. Dad just happened to be the scientific glassblower at Brock at the time. When John VanDenhoff retired in 2006 after 40 years of service, Jordan took his place at the workbench. Scientific glassblowing runs even deeper in the family. Jordan’s uncle also practised the craft and his cousin went on to become the scientific glassblower for the National Research Council.
Having a scientific glassblower on hand isn’t unheard of in a university. The University of Saskatchewan claims to employ the only scientific glassblower in the province. McMaster and Memorial universities, and the universities of British Columbia, New Brunswick and
Lethbridge are among other institutions that have a glassblower on staff.
I was very interested in the family glass-blowing article. My dad, John Lees, was the glassblower in the UBC Physics Department from 1949 till the late 70’s, and taught me quite a bit as I was growing up so that I was often in his workshop helping him. In the summer of 1955, after I had finished Grade 10, I actually took over as the Physics glassblower for 2 weeks while he was in hospital with a slipped disc. At that time Dr. Hans Dehmelt was visiting UBC doing experiments on electron beams in a glass high-vacuum vessel which had to be periodically cut open to replace the source material and then sealed up again. My dad had told me to be extremely careful when warming up the glass beforehand on the lathe, and I succeeded in doing it the first time. However, the next time I was too impatient and the glass cracked as I was trying to reseal the tube. With persistence, I managed to melt the cracks together and get the tube sealed again, but it looked pretty awful and I vividly recall the anguished look on Dr. Dehmelt’s face when he came to pick up his apparatus. Luckily, this did not seriously dent his research career since he went on at the University of Washington to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1989 for his work on single electron spectroscopy and ion traps.