Keys to Curiosity : You give me assay, I give you watercolour

It is a joy to spend time speaking with Professor Kevin Read, artist to scientist, person to person. He openly shares his passion for drug discovery and the route he has taken through industry pharmacology to be where he is now, leading his collaborative team in the search for new drug treatments for neglected tropical diseases.

Kevin is the lead of the DMPK function (Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics), which I understand in a nutshell to be responsible for the overall disposition of how a drug is distributed and behaves within the body, the goal being to disrupt the machinery of the parasite without harming that of the human host. Kevin sees the body as a strategic landscape and design challenge and when I ask him if he maps or draws any of this, he roars with laughter and says, ‘yes, in my head!’

Watercolour image of artist Emily Fong and scientist Kev Read
There is a word I’m hearing often, assay, which I am unfamiliar with. I ask Kev, with humility, to unpack this for me. An assay I learn means a test. For example, if a drug is to be taken by mouth then it must be soluble enough to travel through the digestive tract and into the blood stream. It also needs to be permeable and not to be chopped up and metabolised too quickly by the liver, or it is bye bye! These are just a few primary assays that Kevin’s team designs and performs in the laboratory in close collaboration with medicinal chemistry and biology. Language is powerful and can be a barrier to access if not turned on its head sometimes. It may only take one linguistic key to open new pathways to curiosity and exchange.
From Kev I’m learning that broad chemical diversity is required to find a ‘chemical start point’ in drug discovery. The more options you have, the greater the chance of finding and designing a molecule that will be effective against the parasite, giving it a chance of crossing the ocean. You can see that Kevin is smiling in the moment I have chosen here as my ‘visual start point.’ You might be surprised to hear that at this point in our conversation we are talking about the concept of failure in science. I am being candidly introduced to the idea that a large percentage of the design process in drug discovery will fail, an important part of the process to understand and discuss. It is practically impossible to discover a molecule that will have success from start to finish. The design process is instead an iterative one, a cycle of re-designing and testing back and forward. I suggest then, that there must not be too much room for the ego in the process. At this point Kev smiles again as he says, “The beauty of drug discovery is that it wouldn’t work if it was based on an individual. It is multiple disciplines all interconnected and working to make it happen. There is no room for the ego. The best scientists are always questioning.”
Artists too, are always questioning and we have our words and processes that need unpacking to access. Sometimes we can choose not to share but I am of the opinion that art is for everyone, just as I feel that science could be too. As this is an exchange and you have given me assay, I offer you watercolour. Watercolour is a beautiful media and is a good one for use by curious observers. It is flexible and is often misunderstood as being unforgiving. If the paper is thick and absorbent it will support many layers, if not it will buckle from over saturation. Just like a river bed supports the flow of water, if there is a flood on a page, the colour will follow that path through passive transport. Watercolour is about layering, slowly to begin with, at least until you have undertaken enough assays to fully understand its behaviour. Each layer is called a wash. You can have a ‘wet-into-wet’ wash, where colours will blend actively before drying. You can also have a dry wash, where colours will overlay one another, blending in a more controlled manner. Each colour pigment has unique chemical characteristics. Some colours are collaborative whilst others prefer to go it alone. A wet wash can be ‘lifted’ once again through passive transport by using a brush or a rag before it dries. A colour is not its final colour until it is dry and stable. What this means is that if a colour is vibrant when wet, it will be less so when dry. You can always add more layers once dry, however once dry you can’t subtract. Watercolour is about flow, timing and being present. A good media for right now.
The ocean, dip your toes in.