Georges Kopp: Firing chemistry's glass

As Georges Kopp leads a visitor on a tour of the Otto Maass Chemistry Building, it's with an obvious sense of pride. In just about every corner of every lab, one can readily glimpse ample evidence of Kopp's importance to his department.

Glass instruments of all conceivable shapes and designs the tools that make chemical experiments possible  fill the labs and chances are that Kopp has either repaired or created each one. He is the chemistry department's glassblower and, according to the department's chair, Professor Ian Butler, life would be pretty difficult without him.

"Glass is what a chemist survives on," explains Butler. "It's a crucial part of all our research." Smooth, transparent, durable, easily sterilized and, in the hands of a skilled glass-blower like Kopp, infinitely malleable, glass is the medium of choice for chemists as they introduce gases and liquids to other gases and liquids and then observe the results.

"Georges's forte is in building special equipment. He has come up with some highly sophisticated items for us. In some cases, they were things we just couldn't buy commercially because they didn't exist until he made them."

That's the part of the job that Kopp lives for. "I love working on design  it's why I stay here. This job changes every year because we always get new graduate students with new ideas for experiments and those experiments each require their own custom-built instruments.

"Students come to me with sketches of what they want me to make. Or I'll do all the designing myself after we talk over what they'll need for their experiments. I've invented forms of glassware that people now use all over the world."

Only a handful of trade schools teach glassblowing in North America  there are far more opportunities for learning the skill in Europe where the French-born Kopp was schooled. After apprenticing in Europe, Kopp traveled to Canada where he found work in a company that eventually shut down. Then he arrived at McGill to begin a 25-year stay.

Butler says most large university chemistry departments have a glassblower on staff. "The bigger departments have at least two."

Kopp says it's easy to understand why when one considers how much it would cost universities to keep buying new pieces of equipment instead of repairing broken instruments on-site. "A vacuum line can cost $3,000  that's just one piece."

In his basement workshop, Kopp, who listens to opera and classical tapes as he toils, gives a brief demonstration of his work.

Grasping a glass tube, Kopp places it under the intense heat of a blowtorch. As the blue flame licks one end of the glass, he places his lips on the other side and blows  the portion being heated swells into a circular shape. Using a pick, Kopp gently pokes a hole into the fat end of the tube  still soft from the heat  and uses the blowtorch to weld it to another piece of glass. He's finished in a flash.

His projects range from 10-minute repair jobs to large-scale constructions that can take months to complete. He likens himself to a film director when he prepares for some of his more complicated tasks. "If you lose your concentration for a second, the glass can break. When you're working on something very complicated with many different pieces, you don't want that to happen  a lot of work can go to waste. So I'll have all my pieces lined up very carefully and I'll quickly go from one to another, attaching and weldingÉ"

Glass begins to melt at temperatures of 1000 degrees Celsius. Kopp often dons two labcoats and a pair of asbestos gloves to get his work done.

"In February, when it's freezing everywhere else, it's nice and toasty in here," he says with a smile. "I get more visitors in the colder months."

Daniel McCabe

The impact on these patients' lives is horrific. These are people who may have wanted to lose 10 or 20 pounds who are now facing the option of lung transplant, possibly not being alive in five years, possibly being required to carry around a pump infusing medication for the rest of their lives, unable to work, unable to care for their families, a very poor quality of life.

Dr. David Langleben, from the Department of Medicine, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. Langleben was referring to the banning in Canada and the U.S. of the diet drugs fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine which can cause life-threatening heart and lung problems for some users. Langleben and epidemiology professor Lucien Abenhaim were among the scientists whose studies pointed to the damage these drugs can do.

Judging the law schools

Maclean's is at it again. With its annual university rankings issue a perennial best-seller, it's no surprise to see the magazine branching into related terrain. Last week, Maclean's published its first-ever comparison of the country's law schools.

Dean of Law Stephen Toope has mixed feelings about the exercise.

"There is great diversity in the goals and missions of the different law faculties and the measures Maclean's uses to compare us are rather crude."

Still, he's happy with the way McGill fared.

"The quality of teaching here was rated very high. The reputation of our faculty among legal professionals was also ranked high. The areas where we didn't do as well relate to environmental factors the state of our library and our buildings. We're addressing those concerns, a new library is on the way."

McGill bested all other law schools in the marks achieved by its entering students and finished close to the top in the LSAT scores these students produced. McGill had the best ratio of professors to students (though upper level class sizes were criticized for being too large) and the second best ratio of computer workstations to students.

That last indicator isn't insignificant, says Maclean's education editor Victor Dwyer. "Law students are doing more of their work on the Internet and through CD-ROM databases. Compare McGill (one workstation for every six students) to Dalhousie (one for every 23 students)  if you're a student facing exams or term papers, that's a big difference."

Dwyer says it's too soon to know the official sales figures for the issue, but he suspects it's another hit for Maclean's. "The magazine came out last Monday and it was sold out on Tuesday in all the bookstores I visited."

No matter how much law schools change who and what they teach, the real issue may be that we are leading certain groups on and then dropping them into a system that refuses to change.

Dean of Law Stephen Toope speaking to Maclean's. Toope believes the legal profession as a whole hasn't done nearly enough to create a welcoming environment for female or visible minority lawyers.

A cross-town toast

One of McGill's most august lecture halls is now also one of its most space-aged. Dean of Science Alan Shaver (pictured) recently shared a toast with Macdonald Campus colleagues in the Redpath Museum's lecture room. Not very noteworthy except for the fact that the Macdonald people weren't in Redpath  they were at their own campus, peering back at Shaver from a screen thanks to a new video-conferencing link between the two campuses which ought to help spark joint teaching projects. The Instructional Communications Centre equipped the Redpath room with the latest video-conferencing technology, while Facilities Development staff oversaw the renovations.

Are doctors being trained to prescribe drugs effectively? The answer is no.

Dr. Robyn Tamblyn,from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, talking to The Washington Post. Tamblyn headed a recent study that found that 37% of doctors prescribed powerful painkillers for elderly patients even when the prescription was unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

Judging the law schools

When Brian Mulroney left Ottawa it was as one of the least-liked prime ministers of all time. Canadians just couldn't stomach the man and their feelings carried over into the next election  the Tories went from a majority government to two solitary MPs.

Still, the former PM has been steadfast in his assertion that his government did a fine job and he now has a couple of McGill professors backing him up.

Economics professor Tom Velk and history professor Al Riggs  the co-directors of McGill's North American studies program  examined the economic track record of Canada's post-WW II prime ministers and came to the conclusion that Mulroney did the best.

The professors looked at variables such as unemployment, inflation, growth, interest rates and the deficit. "The question we asked in each case was, 'Did that prime minister improve on the situation he inherited?' From what we could see, Mulroney did a lot of good," says Velk.

Mulroney has taken notice of the McGill professors' work. In a recent speech during which he defended his government's accomplishments, Mulroney referred to their study.

"I was gratified to see the results of this analysis. We worked hard to achieve them and took an awful lot of abuse in the process."

The Liberals will probably come under the scrutiny of Riggs and Velk at some point. How will Jean Chrétien likely fare? "He looks good on the inflation rate and the deficit. The unemployment numbers won't be great. The value of the dollar will hurt him," muses Velk. "He'll probably come out well, but not as well as Mulroney."

No doubt that piece of news will have a certain pair of Irish eyes smiling.

You can always tell the ones who are the nouveau first fliers. They over-indulge and take in everything that's put in front of them, even if it blows two days of business meetings.

Management professor Louis Gialloreto on the subject of first-time first-class fliers. Gialloreto, an expert on the airline industry, was interviewed by The Globe and Mail.