Mixing chemistry & art
Diversity is a hallmark of UT Arlington’s elite Academy of Distinguished Scholars, which includes architects, engineers, social workers, psychologists, historians, physicists, anthropologists and more.
Chemist Richard Timmons works with plasma gas. Artist David Keens makes primo glass.
So they have almost nothing in common, except this: Both are first-rate researchers and leading creative scholars in their fields. At UT Arlington that means they’re equally respected, no matter what they’re studying.
So equally respected, in fact, that the chemistry professor and the art professor were inducted together in 2007 as the newest members of the Academy of Distinguished Scholars, UT Arlington’s highest honor for career research and creative activities. Though it’s an elite society, it’s also diverse. The group’s 20 members represent 16 departments in five colleges and schools.
“I think it’s amazing that the University is so broad and so open to all aspects of research,” Keens said. “And to have them recognize art as being on a par with the kind of things they’re doing in science or engineering or other liberal arts areas is just extraordinary. That’s got to be unusual, and that’s got to be extraordinary. I think those of us who are on the faculty here should recognize what a remarkable place we’re in.”
It’s natural that the Academy of Distinguished Scholars would be this way, interim Provost Ron Elsenbaumer said, because “UT Arlington is a comprehensive research institution recognized for its exceptional scholarship and creative activities across all colleges and schools. The academy reinforces that fact and celebrates our outstanding faculty.”
Honor where honor’s due
University officials formed the Academy of Distinguished Scholars in 2004 to reward their most accomplished researchers. Only tenured faculty are eligible, and they must have been honored previously by UT Arlington for outstanding research. A professor’s academic discipline doesn’t matter, as long as he or she has made “sustained contributions to research and creative activity.”
No problem for Keens and Timmons.
The Legislature and the Texas Commission on the Arts recently named Keens the Texas State Three-Dimensional Artist, an honor given to one artist every two years. Museums on three continents display his art. He also has several architectural installations to his credit, including in UT Arlington’s University Club.
“David is both an outstanding teacher and artist,” former Provost Dana Dunn said. “He is constantly exploring new techniques and visions in glass and sharing his creative exploration with students.”
Dr. Timmons, meanwhile, is an inventor on 11 patents, five of which are licensed exclusively to the Austin-based venture capital firm Emergent Technologies, and he has more than $1.2 million in support for ongoing projects. He has conducted research for such companies as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Texas Instruments, Agilent Technologies and Alcon.
“Dick Timmons is the epitome of research excellence that bridges exceptional scholarship with innovation that truly contributes to keeping America’s competitive advantage,” Dr. Elsenbaumer said. “His ability to conduct fundamental research, recognize important discoveries and translate these to useful, commercializable technologies is unique and quite admirable.”
Despite such acclaim, both professors say the recognition surprised them. And while they’re serious about their research—and the honor that goes with it—they apparently don’t take themselves too seriously.
“You can’t help but be moved by that,” Keens said, “and wonder if they screwed up or not.”
Added Timmons: “I’ve always considered myself more of a blue-collar-plumber kind of guy than what you might call a scholar. I work long hours. And it’s nice to see this recognition in return because now my family knows I’m not here just goofing off.”
The art of science
Technically, Timmons uses plasma polymerization to tailor the surface of materials for biomedical applications. Simply, he can change what’s on the outside of tiny devices that are put in the body to make them work better.
An implanted glucose sensor, for example, may work perfectly. But its readouts may become unreliable if molecules in the body begin to cover its surface. Since 1990, Timmons has looked for ways to alter the surface of these sensors (and similar objects) to make them more biocompatible. He discovered that through a process called plasma polymerization—igniting a plasma in the gas phase—he could deposit very thin films onto the surface of a variety of materials and objects. These films make devices more effective by controlling what sticks to their surface and what doesn’t. Think of Teflon on a skillet, only on a much smaller scale.
Timmons, recently named a Tech Titans finalist in the Innovator Award category, makes these films by applying a variable duty cycle pulse through his plasma. Like an artist picking his pallet, he can control which polymer compositions form the surface-coating film by altering the ratio of the pulse’s “on” to “off” time within the cycle.
“We have observed a certain surface chemistry and its effectiveness in killing certain cancer cells.”
“It took us awhile to really understand all the ramifications of this approach, but we have been trying to exploit this in a number of applications areas,” he said. “And we’re continually looking at new polymers and new types of films that we can produce.”
Potential uses are everywhere. Timmons developed a surface coating for contact lenses to which proteins in the eye can’t cling, making the lenses both more comfortable and more sanitary. He created an ultra-thin adhesive that can hold two tiny mono-layer particles together, which he found especially useful in the burgeoning field of microfluidics. His coating on vascular stents keeps blood platelets from sticking, reducing the risk of thrombosis.
Partnering with biomedical engineering Associate Professor Liping Tang on a National Institutes of Health grant, Timmons has found that different surface coatings on implants that are otherwise identical produce different reactions in the body.
“We’re beginning to observe some very interesting effects,” he said. “One example is some of the nanoparticles we have tested in terms of contacting different cancer-cell lines. We have observed a specificity with respect to a certain surface chemistry and its effectiveness in killing certain cancer cells.”
Now he has his eye on your mouth.
“There are applications for virtually any implant. For example, there’s a biocompatibility issue on whether the bone is going to grow around a tooth implant. Frequently, people have to wait six weeks or a couple of months to find out if an implant has taken. So there’s another area where if you can induce the right reaction and induce bone growth with the right coating on the implant, then you can achieve a beneficial medical result.”
Timmons expects to be on the leading edge of these technologies.
The science of art
Keens sounds like a scientist when he describes his work.
“I create sculptural forms … that explore the very nature of the glass-blowing process. Combined with the development of rich, highly embellished surfaces, I try to create in the work an animated stance, proportion and gesture to express a figurative sensibility.”
His glass sculptures are distinct, often indescribably shaped and always colorful. Stunning and precious, they’re not your mother’s vases.
For Keens, art is an intense process that’s part psychology, part material science, part raw creativity. Details that may seem purely decorative “really represent other things to me,” he said. “To me, they’re very involved and have a very strong conceptual base about memories and experiences from the earlier part of my life. The complexity of them has to do with individual experiences and the complexity of memories. They are assembled in a certain way to have that personal expression. And when I’m doing it, I’m thinking about all those complex ideas.”
Keens’ creations are a marriage of talent and disciplined research. His catalog of art history is unsurpassed, and he visits exhibitions and attends conferences to see where the field is going. He devours academic journals, invites art scholars to UT Arlington, discusses art, studies art, lives art.
“I’m certainly in touch with what’s going on,” he said. “But my focus right now is trying to keep up with the body of work that I have in my head and I want to get done.”
And this is where things are changing. Known best for his detailed blown work, Keens has begun arranging tiny glass tiles called murrinis into large, complex pieces. It’s like a glass mosaic.
He makes each murrini by blowing a glass rod and slicing it like a stick of butter. What he’s left with are small squares (they’re not nanoparticles, but they’re small enough) that he bonds into elaborate larger pieces. He spends most of this time-consuming process arranging the murrinis in the patterns he likes best, which tell a story or offer unique color and shape combinations.
And though this is a new art form for him, he’s catching on. When first lady Laura Bush visited UT Arlington in May, Keens gave her a work called “Map,” which through murrinis tells the story of a student’s transformation at UT Arlington.
Keens says such murrini work won’t replace his blown glass work but is the evolution of artist and art.
“It’s hard work, and sometimes it’s very frustrating and very tiring, as is anything else. But still, that doesn’t change the fact that you’re driven to want to do it.”
And do it better than anyone.
Still work to do
Timmons and Keens have built an impressive résumé of research, but neither is finished. Timmons believes that new plasmas “can open up a new world of applications.” Keens is eager to create more with his murrinis.
And there’s administrative work to do, too. Keens is putting his faculty development leave on hold to help launch the University’s master of fine arts degree, which includes a glass component.
Emergent Technologies has started a company, AeonClad Coatings, based on Timmons’ work. He will be the chief scientist and focus on bringing the biomaterials applications to market.
In the meantime, both the chemistry professor and the art professor want to enjoy their place in the Academy of Distinguished Scholars.
“It’s a wonderful honor,” Timmons said.
As for Keens, “I’ve got to admit that I had a huge grin on my face, and I still do. I’m very excited about this, and I’m very, very proud of it. It would be great to be able to strut around and say, ‘Aw, no big deal.’ But, you know, it really is a big deal.”
So are these two.
— Danny Woodward