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USC’s scientific glassblower lets chemists’ dreams become reality

Part artist and part inventor, Phillip Sliwoski makes handcrafted pieces that keep critical USC labs running.

Phillip Sliwoski is surrounded by glass — on his desk, in cabinets, in big bins at his feet.

He’s a scientific glassblower, which means he designs the glass instruments that chemistry professors and students need for experiments. He’s been at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry for nearly 10 years and is a symbol of a fading art form.

Scientific glassblowers used to populate research universities and corporate labs across the U.S., but due to everything from budget cuts to automation, they’re increasingly scarce. The American Scientific Glassblowers Society has seen its membership drop by 50 percent since the 1970s.

But scientific glassblowers are imperative for chemists who design glassware for their unique chemical reactions. This isn’t stuff you can order in a catalog.

“I make one-of-a-kind items here,” Sliwoski said.

Sliwoski is one of only a few glassblowers left in Los Angeles — Caltech is getting a new one and California State University, Los Angeles has one part-time.

“It’s an art that’s been around for 1,000 years,” Sliwoski said. “You don’t want it to disappear … No matter what, with automation and everything, there’s stuff we still need that’s made out of glass.”

Chemistry Professor G. K. Surya Prakash said his work would literally grind to a halt if it weren’t for Sliwoski.

“All special experiments would stop if we don’t have a guy like Phil in-house,” he said. “Phil is indispensible. I can say that.”

Outsourcing would likely cost more, take longer and leave the department without someone who can make sure an object works — and repair it if needed, faculty said.

Prakash pointed out that glassblowing has always been integral to science. It used to be the norm to take graduate school courses in it. He learned his trade while attending graduate school in both India and Ohio.

Glassblowing is an art. It takes years and years to become proficient at it.

G. K. Surya Prakash

“Glassblowing is an art. It takes years and years to become proficient at it,” Prakash said.

Sitting at his bench burner — a flame of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit burning in front of him — Sliwoski informs you he’s not an artist “like what you see in Venice.”

Scientific glassblowing is more exact, he said, because he’s taking parts and melting them together. But he’s also creating things never made before.

“In some ways, he’s an artist and in some ways, he’s a very sophisticated engineer,” said Chemistry Professor Mark Thompson.

Students will walk in with a complex plan or design and walk out with something much simpler, thanks to Sliwoski, he said.

“My colleagues at other schools don’t have this ability. It enables us to do things that other people just can’t do,” Thompson said. “With Phil, the sky is the limit.”

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