Marianna Pittner tackles unique challenges as a scientific glassblower

Workforce |  3 min. read

For Marianna Pittner, glass blowing is not art.

“It’s a science,” she says.

She means it in a literal sense. Pittner, who is among an increasing number of women working in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields, is also among a rare breed of scientific glassblowers who work in laboratory research.

For 20 years, Pittner has been the go-to glassblower at the Chevron Richmond Technology Center (RTC) in Richmond, Calif., where she is tasked with creating a wide variety of custom glass apparatus for a team of ambitious chemists.

From a sizable workshop equipped with torches, lathes and oodles of glassware of varying heat sensitivities, Pittner repairs and creates complex distillation towers and custom scientific glass apparatuses that Chevron researchers need in their quest to modernize products and processes in the production of transportation fuels. The fuel additive Techron, for example, is one of the more widely known inventions created at the RTC.

By the way, petrochemicals are used to make the main active ingredient of Technon, which is a proprietary component of the product. AFPM respects intellectual property and cannot identify the specific ingredient. We can say, however, the chemistry is based on phenol, which is derived from propylene and benzene, and alkoxy reactants like butylene oxide and propylene oxide. Those are derived from butylene and propylene.

Daily, chemists drop into Pittner’s workshop with requests to create custom glass pieces of varying specifications. At times, she’ll create pieces straight from examples that chemists draw by hand in notebooks. Often, she’ll meet with chemists to come up with blueprints for designs that solve problems in the research process, such as creating glass apparatus that manipulate direction of flow and temperature of the solutions undergoing tests.

“I will never tell the chemist I can’t do that,” Pittner said. “I will figure it out; I enjoy the discovery. You have to be very logical and problem-solving to make it in this field.”

Pittner didn’t expect to become a scientific glassblower. Originally from Hungary, she initially tried to get into a training program to create custom design jewelry from precious stones. She was told she couldn’t enter the school, but also informed about a training school on scientific glassblowing, which she found interesting.

She joined the full-time training school where she learned about the craft, its history, technical drawing, safety, chemistry, math and other subjects. She earned a Masters in glassblowing after three years, then took additional chemistry courses for two years to embolden her knowledge.

How rare are scientific glassblowers? When she applied for the position at Chevron, she said she was offered her job five minutes into the interview, in large part after she told them she’d completed her education in the Hungarian program.

Membership in the American Scientific Glassblowers Society has been reduced from 1,000 members to about 500 in 50 years, according to UC Berkeley, which recently profiled one of its on-campus glassblowers, Jim Breen. Only about 50 work at college or universities, said Breen.

The combined skillsets of craftsmanship, science and problem-solving skills aren’t easy to come by. As Pittner points out, the problems solved in her workshop are not the type you can Google for answers.

“Some things we work on don’t even have a name yet,” she says.

Chevron benefits from an in-house glassblower because it is more efficient in both cost and time, and a good way to protect company-confidential information in a hyper-competitive environment, Pittner said.

“My chemist comes in and says, ‘Marianna, can you add this or that on this, and I say, sure, come tomorrow and pick it up,’” she said. “You have to be creative because sometimes they don’t know what they want. They just know what they want to have happen. And then we just talk about it for a while and we try it and then go back. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. I always say everything is possible.”

Having someone with that skill and confidence is highly valuable, said John Greene, Distillation Process Technical Team Leader at RTC?, who has been working with Pittner for 10 years.

“Glassblowers are not a dime a dozen,” Greene said, “but a well sought-after commodity. Marianna’s quality is unmatched. She creates a variety of instruments, and her glassware is necessary to collecting accurate data and creating superior distillation research.”

Pittner said there have been many candidate glassblowers who walked into her shop, saw the degree of technicality in her work, and either walked right out or didn’t last very long.

While she has the respect of her colleagues, Pittner says women in a male-dominated field still face challenges overcoming the stereotype that only men can be glass blowers.

Pittner can proudly state that, despite the scorching temperatures she deals with, she’s had no injuries in 20 years. She said she appreciates Chevron’s approach to safety, including the company-wide mantras: “Do it safely or not at all,” and, “There is always time to do it right.”

“It’s very important,” she said. “You don’t rush, because maybe it will cost more if you hurry.”

“I love this job because it’s creative,” she said. “I’m constantly designing things for Chevron, and it’s very fulfilling to know my glassware is helping chemists develop something new.”