THE GLASS GURU
Propelled by “Case drive,” Arun Varshneya used glass science to build better products and save lives. He’ll receive our Gold Medal at Homecoming this fall.
By Robert L. Smith
Arun Varshneya, MS ’68, PhD ’70, was a college student in England in 1964, a young scientist curious about glass technology but unsure of his future, when Professor Alfred Cooper arrived from America. The visiting professor, one of the world’s foremost ceramicists, became his advisor in an honors engineering program. A mutual admiration blossomed. Quicker than Varshneya imagined possible, he was on a ship sailing across the Atlantic toward the promise of a full scholarship.
“It’s called destiny, I think,” Varshneya said recently. “Al Cooper and I hit it off. He said, ‘Come join me at Case Institute of Technology.’ He was a glass guy.”
Varshneya came to Cleveland and became a glass guy: One of the best in the world.
In October, Varshneya plans to return to his alma mater to be honored
at Homecoming & Reunion Weekend. The entrepreneur and professor emeritus from Alfred University is to receive the Gold Medal award, the highest honor bestowed annually by the Case Alumni Association, in recognition of professional achievement and scientific leadership.
In the world of glass, Arun Varshneya is Waterford crystal — the top of the line. For 30 years, he was a researcher and professor of glass engineering science at Alfred, Cooper’s alma mater and the only university in the nation with a PhD in glass science. His textbook, Fundamentals of Inorganic Glasses, now in its 3rd edition, is the science’s bible. His innovations have earned him 10 patents and resulted in high-performance glass for smartphones and medical devices.
Most notably, Varshneya helped develop the chemically- strengthened glass that allows the EpiPen to reliably deliver life-saving shots. That eureka moment led to his company, Saxon Glass Technologies.
“It’s quite amazing the number of things he’s been involved with over the years,” said former classmate Robert Smialek ’65, MS ’67, PhD ’70. “He’s quite a dynamic personality. He’s world renowned. And he’s a great guy, besides.”
Varshneya is generally soft-spoken but hard to miss under a full head of pepper-sprinkled white hair. His broad face breaks often into a friendly smile. He was born and raised in Agra, India, a city famous for the Taj Mahal. His father, a businessman, sold chemicals and labo- ratory glass products. He suggested his inquisitive son explore glass technology.
“He told me I would find it interesting. Glass is something between a liquid and a solid. I was always curious, ‘What is it?’”
He went to the University of Sheffield for a second bachelor’s degree and to find out more. Cooper, who was preparing to lead ceramics engineering at CIT, became his advisor on his senior project. He saw something in the young scientist and suggested he would thrive at Case.
Varshneya recalls his mentor making the expensive transatlantic phone call to Cleveland. Not long after,
a dean called back and asked to talk with the young prospect.
“He said, ‘Just pack your bags and come to Cleveland,’” Varshneya recalls. “In those times, personal connections had a way of working.”
“A Case education was always about using science for the betterment of society.”
AN EDUCATION IN FULL
His education broadened on Case Quad. He joined the Department of Metallurgy as a graduate assistant but took courses in mathematics and engineering as well as materials science. He minored in physics.
“I really enjoyed my Case education,” Varshneya said. “Case gave me depth and breadth in the subject matter. That was
a tremendous boon to me. I learned not only about glass. I learned about ceramics, about metals and polymers. They were like, ‘Hey, take whatever courses you like. See where it takes you.’”
After earning a master’s degree in metallurgy, he went on for his doctorate in materials science. Then he joined Ford Scientific Labs in Dearborn, Michigan, working on chemical strengthening of auto glass. He jumped to GE Lighting to work at Nela Park, the historic smart park in East Cleveland. There he reconnected with Smialek, who hired him into his lamp lab.
“He was an outstanding contributor for the company,” Smialek said.
Varshneya developed a reputation as a problem solver and an innovator and was given freedom to do research, including early work on molecular dynamics, glass sealing and finite element stress analysis of glass products.
“I did a lot of science at Nela Park,” he said. “It was beautiful.”
Still, he had always wanted to teach. When Alfred University offered a faculty position, “I couldn’t resist.”
In 1982, after a dozen years in industry, Varshneya joined the faculty of Alfred, a small university in the hills of western New York state, where he helped develop the glass science and engineering program and taught undergraduate and graduate level courses. His work generated about 160 publications, according to the university. His students called him the “Glass Guru.” Today, they sprinkle the leadership ranks of science and engineering operations around the country.
In 2019, two former students organized a “Festschrift,” for a celebratory symposium in honor of Varshneya and his lifetime achievements, at the 25th Annual International Congress on Glass in Boston. The four-day symposium drew hundreds of former students and colleagues, as well as leading lights in glass science from around the world.
Varshneya had retired from Alfred in 2011, but not from glass. He was already deep into his venture as a problem-solving glass engineer.
SCIENCE FOR HUMANITY
The EpiPen injector is used to treat severe allergic reactions to calamities like bee stings and peanuts. The device delivers epinephrine, an antidote to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Key to the device working is an impermeable glass cartridge, which holds the medicine. The problem was that the glass kept breaking.
In 1995, a pharmaceutical company approached Alfred University for help. Varshneya and colleagues developed an ion-exchange process that strengthened the glass by replacing some of the sodium ions at the glass surface with larger potassium ions.
“That stuff gives you a huge amount of compression, and that compression leads to glass strengthening,” he said.
The cartridges became nearly unbreakable. Before the Alfred process, as many as one in 10 EpiPens broke during injections, Varshneya said. Afterward, the failure rate dropped to below one in 1 million.
At the suggestion of the pharmaceutical company, Varshneya cofounded Saxon Glass Technologies to create the glass cartridges exclusively for the EpiPen. Joining him later as Saxon’s CFO was his wife, Darshana, whom he wed in 1973 in an arranged marriage. The couple had already raised three daughters. Now they wrote a startup success story. By 2019, Saxon Glass employed about 35 people and was shipping 35 million EpiPen cartridges a year.
Its formulas helped develop the chemically-strengthened glass that protects smartphones, but Varshneya is most proud of his success with the EpiPen.
“I think the best part is that my staff helps to save thousands of lives each year,” he said. “And that’s very satisfying. Call it the ‘Case drive.’ A Case education was always about using science for the betterment of society. When I was a student, everyone knew that.”
In October, he and Darshana left Alfred, New York, and moved to northern Virginia, to a new home near one of their daughters and their grandchild.
He still leads Saxon as president but is planning to step away. He’s looking forward to coming home to Case for the Homecoming awards ceremony, to visiting a campus he has not seen in several years.
“I’m honored and humbled,” he said. “And I’m proud that I was able to carry on the Case legacy.”