Glass scientist Mauro joins Penn State, sets sights on shaping students

John Mauro, professor of materials science and engineering, was co-inventor of three iterations of Corning's Gorilla Glass, which is used in billions of electronic devices. Mauro worked for the company for nearly two decades before joining Penn State. Credit: David Kubarek / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Glass researcher John Mauro’s plane had just touched down stateside from an intercontinental flight from Japan when he suddenly realized the broad impact of his work.

“As the plane lands, what does everybody do?” said Mauro, who recently joined the Penn State faculty as a professor of materials science and engineering. “They pull out their cell phones. I was looking around and I thought ‘wow, almost every single person on this plane is holding onto a piece of something I helped create.' It’s such a cool feeling.”

Mauro is the co-inventor of three iterations of Corning’s Gorilla Glass, a thin, durable, touch sensitive, cover glass that has been used in billions of cellphones, tablets and touch-screen devices worldwide. Mauro was one of multiple developers of an early iteration of Gorilla Glass, and dozens of other patented products, during his 18-year career at Corning before shifting this year to academia.

Along with a trove of international ties, he brings with him the ability to create an environment that melds the experimental and modeling aspects of discovery, paired with a creative process that helps produce groundbreaking products like Gorilla Glass.

“I want to help advance Penn State’s premiere academic glass research group, and the only way to do that is to embrace both experimental and modeling aspects of glass chemistry and physics, including both fundamental science and engineering,” Mauro said. “I want to build upon the already very strong program that Carlo Pantano, distinguished professor emeritus of materials science and engineering, has developed.”

That isn’t just lip-service. Corning has hired more than a dozen of Pantano’s doctoral students.

In his career, Mauro positioned himself at the intersection between glass chemistry and physics with both experimental and modeling work. This approach is how he plans to structure learning at Penn State.

He also wants to bring a new level of excitement, much like that he found at Corning, one of the few remaining industrial research labs that commits between 8 and 10 percent of its annual revenue to research and development.

“It’s an environment where every day I could come into the lab and learn something new. Every day someone would come into my office very excited about some new discovery that they had or a question that they wanted to discuss,” Mauro said. “It’s a really vibrant environment for stimulating creative thinking and learning more. My approach to research has been very largely influenced by that environment.”

Mauro, who has visited dozens of universities across the globe, said Penn State’s facilities and research camaraderie are making for an easy transition.

“It’s the best combination I’ve seen anywhere of people achieving intellectual excellence, and at the same time placing a high value on humility and community. Penn State clearly fosters a very positive, cooperative and family-like environment,” Mauro said.

Discovering glass

As a boy, Mauro visited the Corning Museum of Glass and, as he begged his parents to visit every exhibit, he instantly was hooked. From there, his love of computers led him to found a software company in high school, and pursue dual degrees in computer science and glass engineering science from Alfred University in New York. Mauro interned at Corning using his computer modeling skills, but he soon transitioned to glass research. After working a few years in industry, he returned to Alfred and earned his doctorate in glass science.

The fascinating properties of glass have captured the attention of many more people than Mauro. It’s a material that’s been featured for its aesthetic beauty and mystique for more than 5,500 years.

“If you look back at the history of glass, there are thousands of years of glass being used for beautiful artwork,” Mauro said. “It seems to be something that’s universally valued by people no matter what time or place you’re from. People see it as a beautiful material.”

In fact, Mauro’s recent research shed light on the composition of medieval windows, which are thicker at the base. That deformation was blamed on a unique property of glass: that it’s actually a liquid slowly flowing downward. Mauro found that, although the viscosity of this glass was greatly understated — 16 orders of magnitude less than previous estimates — simply not enough time has passed for this level of deformation. The cause, he said, is the result of medieval glass-shaping methods.

A future at Penn State

Mauro is passionate about mentoring young scientists, and he’s looking forward to transitioning to academia, where he says he can have an even greater impact.

“I’m excited to be able to share my love and my passion for glass with students and colleagues here and to look for great opportunities to do research that will make a difference for them and for the public,” Mauro said. “Fostering a student’s love of science can have a multiplying effect. By myself, I can only do so much. But if I’m working together with a group of students, helping to train them and grow, and each one of those students becomes a contributing member of the community, and then they go on to inspire new people, it has a cascading effect.”

Last Updated October 19, 2017