A ‘glass’ act

A ‘glass’ act

Gary Coyne gives a certain shine to the sciences.

Gary Coyne works a piece of glass.
Coyne repairs a broken tube, heating the glass and steadily blowing it into shape.

Working in temperatures of around 2000 degrees centigrade, the inquisitive, unassuming Coyne molds standard tubes and beakers into custom, one-of-a-kind apparatuses used in research. Coyne is a scientific glassblower.

“The classic statement is that science would be blind without glass,” Coyne explained, adding that there are three attributes that make glass perfect for scientific experiments.  “Glass is transparent, mostly impervious to chemicals, and it’s malleable – and that’s where I come in. I make it malleable.”

Coyne, who has worked at the University for over a quarter century, said his job is primarily to construct, repair and modify glass tubes and science instruments to meet the campus’ research needs.

“He can build the most complicated glassware to do whatever chemical transformation you need,” Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Carlos Gutiérrez said. “If you can draw it, he can build it.”

Faculty and students said that conducting chemistry, biochemistry and other scientific research projects would be nearly impossible without Coyne, in part because of the time and cost involved in creating the specially-made apparatuses.

“He is a real resource,” Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Wayne Tikkanen said. “Having a glassblower allows for creativity. If you buy canned glassware, then your techniques are restricted. … I really wouldn’t be able to do the type of work I do here, without a glassblower.”

Coyne is the only scientific glassblower in the CSU system – what advocates say is testament to the importance placed on research at Cal State L.A. Over the years, Coyne said, he has completed thousands of service orders – from glass hooks and coils for experiments to customized rounded bottom flasks and cells that transmit UV rays.

Perched on a stool behind a large glass blowing lathe, with a long, narrow blowing tube snaked around his neck, Coyne steadily heated his latest project on a recent morning. As the glass flared – taking on the colors of the flame – it softened, allowing him to gently pull a small section of tube, which dangled like melted sugar strings, from the main stem.

“I’ve always worked with my hands and I’ve always worked with the sciences,” he said, without losing his concentration. “For me, glassblowing is perfect. I make stuff for chemistry, geology, biology and physics – all of which I studied in oceanography.”

Coyne, who holds a bachelor’s degree in oceanography from Humboldt State University, got into scientific glass blowing while in college. At the time, he was choreographing a Hungarian folk dance that included a number with bottles on the dancers’ heads. For the bottles to stay put, though, the bottom needed to be concave, he explained. With the closest thing to a Hungarian wine bottle being a one-liter Erlenmeyer flask, he successfully sought help from a chemistry professor, enrolling in the professor’s glass blowing class to use his tools and complete all the bottles.

Coyne soon discovered that he had a natural hand and ease with glass, and a career that combined his two interest – glass and science – would make for a bright future.