UM glassblower facing fire of campus politics

Chemistry chairman tells him to vacate workshop

January 17, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Mike Trembly knows how to shape glass heated to a white-hot 1,800 degrees Celsius into intricate, precision instruments for use in advanced scientific research. With practiced ease, he puffs into a thin tube to coax quartz or Pyrex into the odd forms requested by exacting professors.

But the University of Maryland glassblower is at a loss with his latest challenge: negotiating the hot tempers and sharp edges of campus politics.

For the past 14 years, Trembly has been carrying on a family legacy, running the UM glassblowing shop that his father, John W. Trembly, ran for 35 years before him. But now, after nearly a half-century, the family's hold over its crowded workshop in a campus basement may be coming to an end.

Last month, the chairman of the chemistry department informed Trembly, 45, that he had to vacate his shop in the chemistry building by next week. It is taking up space that the department needs for new mass spectrometers, Trembly was told.

Stunned, Trembly has been arranging to move his equipment back to his home workshop in La Plata, while trying to appeal the chairman's decision. With the help of faculty supporters, he has managed to win a few more weeks in his space, but is still looking for a way to stay on campus.

"I love this university," Trembly said. "My dad was here for 35 years."

But Trembly's battle to remain at UM is more than just a son's bid to keep alive a family tradition. It's a sign of the precarious position of scientific glassblowers, a highly specialized niche of craftsmen threatened on several fronts.

Several decades ago, research universities had as many as three or four glassblowers making scientific equipment. Now, most are down to one, if that. As new technology allows chemists and other scientists to carry out experiments with smaller and smaller samples of material, there is less demand for the tubes, flasks and other containers they once ordered from glassblowers.

And much of the glassware researchers do use can be ordered more cheaply by catalog from large glass manufacturers clustered in southern New Jersey.

University glass shops "are shrinking," said Michael J. Souza, the glassblower at Princeton University and president of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, which numbers about 1,000 members. "The trend is not going good."

Trembly said he still gets about 200 orders a year from faculty and graduate students in chemistry, physics, geology and other departments, enough to keep him busy for the two or three days a week he spends in the shop. (He switched from being a salaried employee to a contractor six years ago, and spends the rest of his time doing non-UM work at his home shop.)

Michael P. Doyle, the chemistry chairman, argues that the number of orders doesn't justify the space taken up by the classroom-sized workshop, particularly at a time of budget constraints. Several faculty, he said, have started sending orders to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and other shops in the area where they've found lower prices. "The cost-benefit for us is very, very low," said Doyle. "There are less than a handful of people using it on a regular basis."

Trembly dismisses Doyle's argument, saying that he has a few dozen customers, and that few researchers have gone to the UMBC workshop, which UMBC confirms.

Several of his regular faculty clients, who pay for his work with their research grants, have rallied to his side, testifying to the importance of having an on-campus glass shop. Unlike off-site manufacturers, they say, Trembly can discuss with them the ideal design for the equipment they need, and he can repair broken instruments that would cost much more to order new from afar.

Finally, Trembly has a reputation for taking pride in everything that comes out of his shop - by, for instance, heating all his products in an oven to "anneal" them, or relieve the stress that can cause seemingly smooth glass to burst.

"Any scientist will argue it's handy having someone fabricating materials on hand," said UM geologist Richard J. Walker. "It's a give and take - you suggest something, and they may suggest something to improve the design."

For Walker, Trembly makes 2-foot-long tubes, narrow at one end and wider at the other, in which Walker dissolves rocks to measure their origin and evolution. The shape of the tubes changes according to the type of material tested, requiring the custom design work of Trembly.

Other orders have included repairing "manifolds," multitube contraptions for chemistry experiments that look like some kind of newfangled horn, and a laser tube that would cost $10,000 new but which Trembly fixed for $800. Then there was the geologist's request for a glass globe in which to re-create the firing of electrodes in the Earth. "It throws God's theory all to heck, which kind of bothered me, but maybe God made the electrodes, too," Trembly said.

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