An Artisan Scientist

Ranking in the top 15 among materials science programs nationwide, Penn State has a long history of glass research dating back to the 1950s.

Briana Bennett approached her first day at Penn State with unwavering focus.

Finding the buildings where her classes would be held could wait. Exploring the town could wait. She had a more pressing task: finding Carlo Pantano, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering, one of the world’s leading experts on the science of glass and the man behind the glassblowing studio in the basement of the Steidle Building on the University Park campus.

“I literally ran up four floors of steps and knocked on his door,” the Georgia native said. “He answers, and I’m standing there completely out of breath like, ‘Found you!’”

Finding Pantano that first day was so important because he and his glass studio were central to why Bennett was at Penn State in the first place. Having taken a glassblowing class at the Harrisburg Area Community College after moving to Pennsylvania, she immediately fell in love with the craft—the heat of the furnace, the glow of the fire, the feel of molten glass shifting as she works with it, and the satisfaction of creating a work of art that has both artistic form and practical function.

“Materials engineering, honestly, blows my mind. I’m working on a molecular level, with the building blocks of the world. It’s amazing.” —Briana Bennett, materials science and engineering senior

So when she learned that studying at Penn State would grant her access to some of the world’s top materials scientists and glass researchers, as well as a fully-equipped glass studio to hone her craft, she knew this was the place for her.

“She ran all the way here, banged on the door, and said, ‘You’re Carlo!’” Pantano laughed, reflecting on that first meeting four years ago. “It turned out to be the beginning of a really great relationship.”

A Penn State Tradition

Bennett—who is now a senior in materials science and engineering—describes herself as a naturally curious person, always “trying to figure out the ‘why’ of things.” She brings that mindset to her work as an artist, a student, and a scientist.

“If we see something break in the studio or an idea doesn’t work, she doesn’t just throw it away, she asks why. She’s always looking for new ways to make things,” Pantano said. “What I’ve tried to help her realize is that this makes her unique.”

Professor of Materials Science and Engineering John Mauro agrees: Bennett blends both the intuition of an artist with the knowledge and training of a materials scientist, an uncommon combination. She’s able to use her understanding of glass on the molecular level to inform her glassblowing, while also investigating glass and its unique properties to better inform her artwork.

“What Briana’s doing is so important because the science and art communities have so much to learn from each other,” Mauro said. “One of Penn State’s strengths is how they encourage these kinds of multidisciplinary collaborations, to create these kinds of opportunities for students like Briana. There’s nothing here to hold her back.”

For instance, Bennett is conducting original research for her senior thesis looking into how different elements or other impurities influence the properties of glass. With Mauro’s guidance, she designed a selection of samples by melting minerals to create different kinds of glass, then conducted experiments to see how different minerals and other impurities affected the color and other properties of the glass.

“One of Penn State’s strengths is how they encourage these kinds of multidisciplinary collaborations, to create these kinds of opportunities for students like Briana.” —John Mauro, professor of materials science and engineering 

“Materials engineering, honestly, blows my mind,” Bennett said. “I’m working on a molecular level, with the building blocks of the world. It’s amazing.”

Not only can she use this research in her own artwork—understanding on a molecular level how to achieve a range of vibrant colors—she’s been able to research the potential for developments on the forefront of glass science. One potential application of her research is the development of antimicrobial glass that actively kills bacteria through the proper concentration of copper present in the glass, a development that could have major ramifications in everything from paint manufacturing to sterile environments in hospitals and laboratories.

“One of the first scientists to really explore colored glass was Penn State researcher Woldemar Weyl in the 1950s, whose work was truly groundbreaking,” Mauro said. “I see Briana’s work as a continuation of that. She’s carrying on this wonderful tradition of glass research at Penn State.”

The Pied Piper of Glassblowing

Bennett has truly made the most of all the unique opportunities available to her at Penn State.

In addition to the mentorship received and the opportunity to conduct original research, she’s also been able to help Pantano manage the glass studio and teach other Penn Staters who want to learn how to blow glass.

Briana Bennett and Christina Valentino

Briana Bennett and Christina Valentino

Briana Bennett, right, looks on as Christina Valentino adds color to a ball of molten glass as they work on a new glassblowing piece together. Valentino said Bennett has taught her new glassblowing techniques and helped her grow as an artist.

IMAGE: Michael Martin Garrett

“We sometimes call her ‘the Pied Piper of Glassblowing,’ because she’s connected with students from all over the University, students who don’t study glass who suddenly want to know more about glass science." —Carlo Pantano, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering

Several nights a week, Bennett can be found down in the Steidle Building’s basement with a smile on her face as she rotates a ball of molten glass in the heart of the furnace. And if she’s not working on her own glassblowing projects, then she’s teaching others, walking them through the process, breaking down complicated techniques, and helping them take their first steps toward becoming glass artists.

“We sometimes call her ‘the Pied Piper of Glassblowing,’ because she’s connected with students from all over the University, students who don’t study glass who suddenly want to know more about glass science,” Pantano said. “That’s amazing. She has that kind of personality, that kind of passion for what she does, that draws people in.”

Christina Valentino, a senior studying strategic communications, said that even though she’s been glassblowing for the past four years, working with Bennett has helped her grow as both an artist and as a person.

“Bri has been an incredible teacher, and I’ve learned so much from her,” Valentino said. “She’s really encouraged me to try new things, and she’s always ready to try to make something wacky. Even if it seems impossible, she says, ‘Let’s find a way.’”

For Bennett, her academic research and her practical experience running day-to-day operations of the Penn State glass shop have provided invaluable preparation for one of her major career goals: opening her own glassblowing studio. Having been to Costa Rica numerous times throughout her life, she quickly fell in love with the culture and natural beauty of the area. By establishing her own studio in Costa Rica, Bennett hopes to be able to teach others the challenging and rewarding glassblowing craft while using proceeds from the studio to support sustainability initiatives and rainforest protection.

“There aren’t many glassblowing shops in Central America, so I’d really like to give people the chance to learn,” Bennett said. “What can I say? I like to make things, I like to teach, I like to learn.”