A third-generation scientific glassblower incinerates the glass ceiling.
If you want to see Christine Roeger’s exquisitely crafted glass pieces, you can’t visit a museum. But you could look on Mars. There, a quartz window she whittled helps a rover peer across the Red Planet. She’s also created a multi-walled instrument that descended into a volcano to pump out superheated air, a glass cage that measured birds’ respiration under stress, and a large-scale distillation apparatus that plumbed the depths of the ocean in search of a cancer cure. Roeger is a rarity. She’s one of about 650 scientific glassblowers in the U.S., one of only a dozen or so women in the field, and one of even fewer third-generation scientific glassblowers. Running Arizona State University’s Glassblowing Facility as a one-woman operation, she’s carrying on a long but unheralded tradition that goes back to the makers of Galileo’s thermometer and Thomas Edison’s light bulb.
Your grandfather was a scientific glassblower at the University of Wisconsin, and your father was a scientific glassblower at ASU. What was it like growing up in this tradition?
To me it was normal. Sometimes I still think about it when I walk into this atrium area [in ASU’s facility]. I would be roller-skating out there, and my dad would be in here working, and I’d get to blow glass bubbles. He had a little shop at home in the side yard, and we would go out there and watch him blow glass. In my dad’s shop, I started around [age] 12. He would have me make little, simple things for him, all scientific. I’ve always been comfortable around glass. I was always into math and science and creating things.
How did you know you wanted to do this professionally?
I started college here, in the education school. I initially was going to be a kindergarten teacher. My dad said, “We could use some extra help. When you’re not studying, why don’t you come in and be a student helper?” I never thought I’d be a glassblower. But when I saw the interactions with the students, I thought, “This is really cool. Maybe this is what I want to do.” So I got an apprenticeship program going, switched to working full time in the apprenticeship and ended up with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and got my journeyman’s certificate at the same time. I started working here full time and have been here ever since.
What’s it like being a woman in this profession?
It’s always been a male-dominated field, with a lot of old German glassblower men. Sometimes people walk in and they’re like, “Can I talk to the glassblower?” And I’m like, “Right here.” I went to a [American] Scientific Glassblowers Society meeting in my first couple years. I walked into an elevator full of glassblowers with my badge on, and they said, “Oh, where does your husband work?” I said, “I’m the glassblower.” Then it got quiet.
Describe your collaborative process.
Grad students are my main customers. They come up with these crazy ideas of glass they need made. I don’t make anything you can buy from a catalogue. It’s all custom. Sometimes someone that’s never been in before is overwhelmed, so I walk them through the steps and help them design their glass. Then there’s people who’ll say, “I was thinking the other night” and [take out] scratch paper with a rough drawing. Then I have the engineers coming in with everything in a technical drawing. I have a couple hundred jobs a year. Sometimes the jobs take 40 hours. But then I’ll have a little job repairing a flask. Every job is different. That’s why I love it here.
But a lot can go wrong working with glass and a 2,000-degree flame…
I have burned myself. I have quite a few burns and cuts. It goes with the job. I can never have long fingernails or pretty hands. Sometimes I’ll put 40 hours into something and it’ll crack, and you just have to start over. I worked a week on a vacuum pump once, and I get it out of the oven, and I drop it on the floor. That day I went home.