In a non-descript grey shop north of Anola, Lesa Cafferty practices a specialized trade that’s part art and all science.
As Manitoba’s only scientific glassblower, Cafferty fabricates, modifies, and repairs custom labware used by chemists across North America.
Her company, Cafferty’s Scientific Glassblowing, established in February 2018, also accepts orders for glassware ranging from the decorative (a unicorn inside an hourglass) to the functional (wine and beer glasses).
Cafferty, 45, learned the trade from her father, James Cafferty, who worked at Whiteshell Laboratories near Pinawa. The nuclear research site, operated by Atomic Energy of Canada, closed in 2003, but was a major employer in the area for decades.
On weekends, her father would tinker with glass in the family’s garage, and Cafferty assumed the hobby was her father’s creative outlet. That changed in Grade 11, when she spent a day with him at the underground lab.
"I didn’t know what I wanted to do (for a career), so I went and hung out with him."
She was immediately captivated by glassblowing’s scientific applications.
"That’s when I kind of went, ‘This is intriguing,’ and the more complex it got, the more intrigued I got."
After finishing high school, Cafferty began apprenticing under her father, and discovered a natural aptitude. She cruised through a seven-year apprenticeship in just four years.
After her father retired, Cafferty stayed on at the company two more years, before a round of layoffs in 1998 sent her looking for work.
She applied for glassblowing jobs in Nebraska, California, and North Carolina before her father’s cancer diagnosis convinced her to stay in Manitoba and piece together part-time work.
"It was tough for me," Cafferty said.
In 1999, she married her husband, a Steinbach RV salesman, and purchased the Anola property a year later.
One day, in 2006, her phone rang. Ian Ward, the University of Manitoba chemistry department’s only staff glassblower, was retiring, and administrators were anxious to find a replacement. But Ward, who also apprenticed under James Cafferty, knew just who to call.
Cafferty’s first assignment for the university required her to use a lathe, rather than her trusty stationary burner. The result was a flop, and Cafferty worried she had just ruined a promising job opportunity.
She dialed her father, who said it was good for a perfectionist to be humbled by a mistake.
"Now you know you’re only human," she recalled him saying.
Cafferty redid the piece, and went on to work at the university for 11 years. In 2017, when the department decided to contract out its glassblowing services, they sold Cafferty the equipment—lathe, kiln, propane burner, drill press—and she opened her shop five months later.
University of Manitoba orders now account for half of her business. Every Wednesday, she drives to campus to drop off orders and pick up repairs.
Cafferty said she likes working steps from her door, but misses interactions with university colleagues. She is slowly expanding her clientele through word-of-mouth referrals, and has filled orders for prestigious institutions like MIT in Boston, Mass.
Each instrument can take anywhere from one to three hours to make. Completed pieces are "annealed" or cooled uniformly before leaving the shop, to relieve stresses formed during the manufacturing process.
High temperature applications require quartz glass, while borosilicate glass, also known as Pyrex, suffices for standard equipment.
A basic pencil diagram is all Cafferty needs to begin working, but the tolerances are tight enough to make a carpenter wince: as little as half a millimetre, in some cases.
After 28 years on the job, she still likes a good challenge, and takes pride in the end result.
"That’s the thing I love about this job: when you complete something, it’s very rewarding."
Scientific glassblowing faces an uncertain future. Cafferty’s two closest colleagues work at the University of Saskatchewan, and for 3M in Minneapolis, Minn. Many are approaching retirement age, and a single college training program in Salem, N.J. turns out only a small crop of new graduates each year.
As shops close, contract labour is becoming more common. Many universities now order standard labware from a catalogue. Made overseas, it’s of poor quality and prone to breakage. Cafferty often repairs the items when they fail.
Cafferty doesn’t have an apprentice, but said she’s open to training one someday.
Reflecting on her 28-year career, she recalled attending her first trade symposium with her father, in 1996.
"I’ll never forget it, because I remember walking around going, ‘Where are all the other women?’"
Since then, the trade’s glass ceiling has shattered, though Cafferty said she never faced discrimination from her male colleagues.
Today, when she attends the same symposium, she sees more women than ever.
"You never saw a young apprentice back then, whereas now you do."