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Karen Carraro serves Penn researchers as a contracted worker through her own glassblowing business. 

Photo: Carson Kahoe

Penn’s workforce is more than 17,000 members strong, including about 5,000 faculty members. Amongst the thousands of employees and contracted workers are individuals with a wide array of jobs driven by their own passions. Though some of these roles might be atypical for a University, they can play a big role in furthering Penn’s goals as an institution.

Not all of Penn’s employees are professors or administrators. Tasked with everything from Zamboni-driving to gardening to glassblowing, here are a few roles you might not know existed at Penn, and the people behind them.

David Sabin

David Sabin’s love of hockey led him to his job as the assistant manager and hockey director of the Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena.

Commonly referred to as the Ice Rink, the facility is unique in that it’s not managed by Penn Athletics, but by the Business Services Division. With no NCAA hockey team to monopolize the ice, Sabin and his colleagues work on programming and rentals to keep the Arena busy.

“We try to be good at just utilizing every minute of our time,” he said. “If the arena’s open, we want to bring someone in to take advantage of it.”

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David Sabin works as the assistant manager and hockey director of the Penn Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena. | Courtesy of Annie Weinstein/Penn Business Services

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Louise D. Clarke tends to yucca plants at the Morris Arboretum, where she oversees the 65-acre Bloomfield Farm section. | Courtesy of Morris Arboretum 

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Natalie Subeh Nuhn provides care for children of Penn faculty, staff and students in her role as executive director of the Penn Children's Center. | Courtesy of Annie Weinstei/Penn Business Services

Throughout the week, skaters anywhere from ages six to 70 can be found on the ice. Sabin shuffles through local teams from Lower Merion High School and the Ed Snyder Youth Foundation, as well as club teams from Penn, Drexel and Temple universities.

Plus, he runs an adult league and helps facilitate hockey and skating clinics for those new to the ice. A die-hard hockey fan, Sabin appreciates any time he can get out on the ice to help out, including at the clinics.

In between all of these events, Sabin takes on what is perhaps the most eye-catching part of the job — driving the Zamboni around the rink. (He makes a point to clarify that the Arena actually uses a different, Canadian-made machine called Olympia.) Sabin said the ice-resurfacing process can take over an hour of “slowly dragging in circles.” His expressions hint that after hundreds of laps around the rink, the excitement of being able to drive the machine has worn out for him.

It’s not only hockey or ice skating events that take place at the arena. When the ice comes out for the summer, the Arena is home to roller derby events, volleyball camps, basketball camps, arena football games and even the Wharton vs. Law: Fight Night charity boxing event.

Even during the winter, Sabin helps student groups rent out the rink for a late-night hockey alternative that he loves almost as much as the real thing: broomball. Broomball is similar to hockey except players run in shoes and use broom-like sticks.

“It’s more accessible to those who are scared off by the skating aspect,” he said. “But it’s a really fun game.”

Sabin emphasizes that the Arena is available for any student group that might have a unique idea about how to use the space.

“Our biggest challenge is to get Penn students to know we’re here,” he said. “If you walk by, the arena is kind of camouflaged into the side of the street.”

Natalie Subeh Nuhn

One of the groups that makes frequent visits to the Ice Rink can be found just across Walnut Street at the Penn Children’s Center, home to the tiniest members of the Quaker community.

Also part of Penn’s Business Services Division, the Center provides care for the children of Penn faculty, staff and students.

“Our job is to support [these parents] so that they can go to work or be a student and feel that their children are being cared for in an environment that is nurturing,” said Executive Director Natalie Subeh Nuhn, who has been with the Children’s Center since 2001.

On average, the PCC serves about 185 children, ranging from as young as six weeks to five years old. Unlike most of Penn’s classrooms, here powerpoints and textbooks are swapped out for toys and picture books.

Nuhn admitted that it could sometimes be difficult to find a way to be fair to everyone and their individual needs when there is such a high demand for childcare. However, she added that interacting with families at the University and serving as a support system for them are among her favorite parts of the job.

“One of my passions is education and always learning,” she said. “I think that I can learn from my staff, I can learn from 3-year-olds, or even 15-month-olds.”

And while she is learning, there is certainly a lot that Nuhn is teaching her staff as well. Nuhn loves to help those that are new to the profession and points to the journey that many of her staff members have taken.

Most staffers begin as temporary workers who enjoy working with children. Through the support of the Children’s Center and the University at large, their careers have developed and some are even working toward their bachelor’s degrees.

Nuhn also expressed how much she enjoys being able to mentor student workers. She appreciates their commitment to the PCC and likes to help them find ways to incorporate their own interests into activities for the children.

“What’s your interest and how can you build that with us?” she asks each new student worker. In addition to reading books, helping at meal times or simply engaging in conversation with the children, Nuhn encourages her staff, especially student workers, to make use of their areas of expertise.

“I think it’s a break from their studying,” she said of the student workers, adding that for those who have younger siblings or cousins, the center feels like home.

“Who wouldn’t enjoy walking into a room of a bunch of three-year-olds that run up to the door to hug you?” she joked.

Karen Carraro

It might sound like an oxymoron that Karen Carraro calls her work “the art of scientific glassblowing.” But sculpting glass instruments for research experiments requires both a technical expertise and a creative touch.

Carraro, a contracted worker through her own glassblowing business, has been serving Penn researchers for 25 years. She learned the unique skill as an apprentice under a master scientific glassblower, who was also research-trained.

While more basic lab glassware like standard beakers are typically “churned out by a machine,” Carraro makes custom apparatus that are tailored to the needs of researchers within the Chemistry Department and other fields at Penn.

Carraro’s process begins when a researcher comes to her with a problem or an idea. Her expertise allows them to take their work beyond the standard lab tools.

“Knowing that there’s a scientific glassblower on site lets [researchers] think outside of the box, outside of the catalogue product line,” she said. “And we try to find a way through the creative process and the limitations of glass itself — and that’s where it becomes a lot of fun.”

From the planning stage, Carraro has to record the specifications and measurements, draw a blueprint and prepare her tools before she can actually begin creating the glass apparatus. The entire process can take several days.

Among the most complex tools she crafts are high-vacuum systems used for synthesizing pharmaceutical products. Though her work is mostly engineering-based, Carraro believes there is also an artistic quality to it.

“Everything that I create is made by my hands, and each piece can be slightly unique,” she said. “That is why it is considered the art of scientific glassblowing.”

When asked what she enjoys most about her job, Carraro said that it was the ability to live her passion working with both Penn researchers and a material that is one-of-a-kind.

Many universities, like Penn, have their own in-house glassblowers, but “it’s becoming less common,” Carraro said.

“The very first glassblowers were actually the researchers themselves making basic apparatus for their own labs and their own use,” she explained, adding that after World War II, scientific glassblowing became a popular field.

Carraro says that it’s “now considered somewhat of a dying art,” but that doesn’t stop her from enjoying the opportunity to support researchers by doing something she loves.

Louise Clarke

Louise Clarke’s job is much dirtier than her past career as a clinical laboratory scientist. In 2008, she put down her sterile lab tools and opted to get her hands dirty as an intern at Morris Arboretum.

Today, Clarke oversees the Arboretum’s 65-acre Bloomfield Farm section, which includes more than 1,200 trees and shrubs, two green roofs and a community garden.

And while she has the help of a part-time intern, Clarke admits that maintaining such a large swath of land is no easy feat.

“Having to manage everything from trees, shrubs, gardens, roofs and even a grist mill requires a lot of time, labor and equipment,” she said. “There never seems to be enough to go around and that is our biggest challenge.”

Nevertheless, whether it’s the physical activity, the seasonal changes or the glimpses of wildlife, there’s so much about working at Bloomfield Farm that Clarke loves.

“It is enjoyable to have a position where I work both outdoors and indoors,” she said. “My favorite job is tending the green roofs, where I experiment with plants to determine which ones are best suited to green roof culture in our region.”

In addition to her duties out in the field, Clarke teaches classes, runs workshops and writes for Seasons (the Arboretum’s publication). She appreciates the role the Arboretum plays within the University as a resource for sustainability and community leadership.

“Self-selected students visit the Arboretum at the beginning of the fall semester, and some come with their professors to view the sustainable features of the Horticulture Center,” she said.

Though Penn students can visit the Arboretum free of charge with their Penn ID, Clarke says many of them don’t know it. She hopes they take advantage of the resource at their fingertips.

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