For decades at Penn State, Pantano scratched the surface of glass research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, Carlo Pantano gets hands-on with his teaching and research.

That’s when the distinguished professor of materials science and engineering pulls melted glass from the crucible at his glass blowing studio on the ground floor of the Hosler Building and begins to shape a material that’s he’s dedicated almost 40 years to understanding. It’s a storied career at Penn State that ends June 30.

Pantano, who is an expert on the surface of glass, established the studio about 15 years ago as a way for his students to better understand the properties behind the material they were studying and to experience creative design with materials. Computer controlled instrumentation was taking over lab experiments but “I still wanted my students to touch glass, to know how it behaves, to push beyond the textbook limits and to explore and be innovative,” Pantano said.

Pantano made another decision, one that forever changed the University and elevated Penn State’s materials research, science and engineering programs.

About 10 years into his career, he realized how much time he and others were putting into building and maintaining complex equipment to study glass and other materials at the atomic level, or in traveling to other labs for access to such instruments. That led him to establish the Materials Characterization Laboratory (MCL), where departments in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) could share equipment and expertise in training students to analyze materials.

Pantano soon realized this lab had broader appeal.

“I went to then-Dean (John) Dutton and asked, ‘Can I take the MCL and merge it with the Materials Research Institute (MRI) because it has more breadth.’ It had more to give Penn State than just in our college, and the dean agreed with me. That was a big factor in building the MRI, and later the Millennium Science Complex, which combined these facilities.” Pantano said. From 1998 to 2014, Pantano led the MRI and the facilities he created to promote interdisciplinary materials research, science and engineering.

MRI now encompasses 19 departments under seven colleges and has more than 240 faculty members, 100 researchers and 800 graduate students conducting more than $75 million in annual research, representing about 9 percent of Penn State’s total research budget.

“This aspect of my career has been very rewarding for me because I feel like I did some things for the college and department and University that are giving and still growing,” Pantano said.

Ties to industry

Pantano’s ability to use advanced science and technology to propel his glass research attracted attention outside of the University as well. Worldwide, glass companies caught wind of his surface research and began seeking him out to explain the science of why their products failed and how to improve the surface stability and functionality of glass.

That led to industry ties that ballooned after he traveled to Italy on sabbatical in 1990.

“That had a huge impact,” Pantano said. “The sabbatical really made a difference for my career. I already had relationships with glass companies. But all of a sudden I had all of these international contacts. When I came back to the U.S., my research program changed a lot. It expanded and was much more international.”

Pantano used his contacts to bring more research funding to the University while connecting his students with industry leaders and industry-related research challenges.

“Industry gives us ideas that we might not otherwise come up with,” Pantano said. “When I go into a factory and see the problems I can come back to Penn State and devise and conduct experiments to help understand what’s going on.”

Pantano said he tasked many of his doctoral students with using science to help meet industry challenges, and always strived to give his students face-time with industry leaders. Even though he’s produced his share of professors, he said a lot of his students sought him out because they were interested in doing doctorate-level research that was application or industry focused.

Shiny new thing

As a teen working on classic cars, Pantano knew he wanted to be an engineer. But a tour of Bell Laboratories — where a trove of materials science discoveries were born — solidified his quest for materials science.

“The trip to that lab was a big deal,” said Pantano, who toured while enrolled as an undergraduate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “I remember squeezing through a lab that was more crowded than any lab I had seen in college. There was excitement surrounding this guy who was growing single crystals, which were the precursors to semiconductors and other emerging electronic materials.”

That excitement propelled Pantano to accept a position to study superconductors in graduate school at the University of Florida, but he quickly became interested in another material, bioglass, which he began working on with its pioneer Larry Hench. Bioglass is now used for medical procedures and is touted for its ability to chemically bond with bone and other parts of the body.

Pantano was most intrigued by the glass surface and its reactivity with living tissue. This led him to build and use surface-sensitive instruments to study the glass surface at the atomic scale for his doctoral thesis. Much of Pantano’s work has focused on the surface science of glass and using it to intentionally change the surface properties of glass to better perform in a myriad of applications.

After graduating with his doctorate, and with three years’ experience at the University of Dayton, Pantano took up an offer to grow the glass program at Penn State. Although his focus had shifted from bioglass to more widely used engineering applications of glass, Pantano doesn’t regret the switch that also led to his use of glasses to understand mineral weathering in collaboration with others here in the College of EMS.

“It’s interesting to reflect on the way the trail of life develops. New electronic materials attracted me to graduate school, but I ended up working to modernize our understanding of an old material, glass,” Pantano said. “Today, my work on glass and surface science is relevant to electronic displays and smartphone technology, nuclear waste disposal, lab-on-a-chip and renewable energy. These and other broad areas of science and technology provide opportunities for interdisciplinary research and can impact our ability to grow as a University in general.”  

Engaging the public

Unlike some areas of materials science, Pantano said glass is easily relatable to the public. He’s enjoyed showcasing the material to the community while also getting the word out that glass isn’t just used for windows and bottles, and that not all glasses are the same. Glass now is used widely in high-end applications due to the development of new compositions and new manufacturing processes for glass.

He has been a Research Unplugged speaker three times and gave two gallery talks in the past 15 years. 

“At the Schlow library two years ago I did a demonstration using a small microwave oven and melted candy glass and pulled fibers right in front of the crowd,” Pantano said. “I consider myself lucky that there are so many places I can go and teach the public about glass. There is always interest.”

On retirement

Pantano said he hopes, as the “glass guru,” he’ll still be called on to help other researchers at Penn State and beyond, as well as to continue his pet research projects. But he also knows it’s time to let others take the reins.

“I’m going to miss being involved in decision-making,” Pantano said, “but I think making decisions about how things are going to move forward are probably best made by the people who will have boots on the ground for the next 20 years.”

He plans to spend more time doing the things he loves, like glassblowing with the students, cooking and spending more time with family and friends.  

He also plans to spend more time with his six grandkids, the offspring of two Penn State graduates.

Grading papers? He’ll leave that one for someone else.

“But for sure, I will miss the days of running a large group of graduate students and post-docs, especially the ski trips, parties and camaraderie that many of us still enjoy together,” Pantano said.

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Last Updated June 30, 2017