By Tatum Lyles Flick
Shedeen Barnett, a scientific glassblower from Jamaica, spent six weeks training with the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry’s master glassblower, Tracy Drier, and his colleague from Wild Rose Glass, Erich Moraine.
Barnett, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of the West Indies, is the only scientific glassblower in Jamaica. With just three years of experience, she jumped at the opportunity to advance her skills.
“When the glassblowers at my university first approached me to be an understudy, I didn’t know what scientific glassblowing was,” she said. “I tried it and fell in love with it.”
A professor in Barnett’s department in Jamaica requested that she produce a piece of equipment originally designed at UW-Madison. When Barnett needed help, that professor introduced her to Drier, who invited her to train for the summer at UW-Madison. Barnett’s department chair, Dr. Roy Porter, strongly supported her and was instrumental in facilitating her trip.
“You can start blowing glass straight out of high school,” Drier said, adding that practice and guidance help develop the skills. “It’s about technique, it’s a craft. You need to know how to manipulate your hands and your glass and how to make it do what you want it to do.”
Barnett learned to create new types of glassware, and to work with new materials, such as quartz, a much harder glass used for photometric analysis.
“They have different techniques,” she said. “I learned one way from Tracy and another way from Erich, so I could come up with the Shedeen way – that’s the way I am most comfortable with.”
Barnett worked with Drier and Moraine to practice different ways to accomplish new tasks, such as creating smooth transitions between tubes, to make more durable glassware, and even how to run her glass shop like a self-supporting business.
“Technical support is awesome, manipulating glass is like learning how to play a musical instrument,” Moraine said.” There’s no substitute for practice time.”
Through this process Barnett learned new skills and improved old ones.
“When I look at the projects I did in the past, they were crooked, they were ugly – I’m being honest – but now, after this month with Tracy, we don’t do ugly,” she said. “The glassware looks beautiful, they are straight, they are not crooked. I’ve come a long way. I said to my supervisor, I feel like a real scientific glassblower since I came here.”
Glass pieces needed for scientific work in Jamaica must be imported, which makes the ability to fix broken instruments also extremely valuable. In addition, she now has people to call for help.
“We like to see how other people solve the same problems,” Drier said, adding that it’s helpful to work with and learn from others.
Barnett cooked Jamaican food for Drier and Moraine and they shared the Wisconsin culture of ice cream and cheese curds. In the end, Barnett went back to Jamaica with a newfound sense of confidence.
“Now I feel competent – and the good thing is that if I fall short, I have two experts to call for help,” Barnett said.
Drier and Moraine enjoyed the experience and want to find other opportunities to spread the knowledge and art of their trade by helping early career glassblowers hone their skills.
“We talked about this idea of finding glass shops that aren’t well supported locally and to see what we can do to help – either with training or equipment, to try to lift the programs in each location,” Moraine said. “So maybe this is the first try.”
Drier felt that the intensive training offered added value.
“We both have taught a lot, through demonstrations and classes, but not at this level – six weeks nonstop,” Drier said, adding that he and Moraine learn from seeing how people across the world solve different challenges.