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Ceramic pottery

A French artist known for his steel sculptures and a young scientist who spends her days spinning drug-loaded polymer fibres to treat cancer. It’s an unlikely partnership where art meets science.

F inding common ground in the creative, Samantha Wade has been working with Didier Balez to learn new techniques for throwing and glazing ceramics. After buying a pottery wheel second-hand, Sam gave it a whirl but needed some guidance, so she called up the School of Arts, English and Media, a short walk from her own office. The resident technical officer answered the phone.

“I’ve been working at the university now for 27 years,” Didier says. “Time flies.” When he’s not helping students like Sam, Didier works mostly with steel, forging sculptures which can be seen around Wollongong. A few years ago, Didier was commissioned by the University to commemorate a notorious campus character, the Evil Duck, a ‘resident’ of the duck pond who was loved – and feared – by students.

Another work, Comradeship, sits atop of the headland in Coledale in memoriam of local community leader Mike Dwyer. In his sculptures, Didier hand-forges the metal for added texture and uses ceramic inlays for colour.

Having worked with so many materials, “Didier is a wealth of knowledge,” Sam says. When she started potting, Sam found that other professional ceramicists were reluctant to help, not wanting to share their trade secrets. “A lot of potters are very protective of their glaze recipes – it’s their business,” she explains. “I started looking into making my own, buying textbooks, but there are so many that I didn’t know where to start. That’s what Didier has been helping me with.”

Samantha Wade and Didier Balez

Didier Balez (left) and Samantha Wade at work in the studio. Photo: Paul Jones

Sam is currently working through her PhD at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, but she has always had an interest in things handmade. Before choosing biomedical science, Sam had considered studying wine-making in her home town of Wagga Wagga. She is also a baker and a seamstress. “I like to make things that you can use, but I also like the process more than the end product, so I gift most of what I make.”

As for ceramics, there’s something in the symmetry. “That’s why I like throwing ceramics on a wheel,” Sam says. Before her pottery sculptures are coated in colour, you can trace the faint lines left by her hands, the motion of the wheel captured in bone-white clay. “I find it quite stress-relieving, thinking and using my hands in a different way to what I do in the lab.”

Colourful chemistry

Ceramic pottery is an age-old art form that transforms clay, one of the most abundant materials on earth, into practical pots or roof tiles, ornamental vases and impressive sculptures like the Terracotta Soldiers in northwest China. Pottery is fired once to drive the water out of the clay (terracotta is Italian for ‘baked earth’) and again, if desired, to add decorative glazes.

“Every glaze recipe has a base, typically silica, to which you add different oxides, like blue-green copper carbonate or iron oxide for red,” Sam explains. “There’s a lot of chemistry in that.” There’s also a lot of experimentation because you never quite know how a glaze will turn out. “Some will work, some won’t – and some will be a disaster,” Didier adds.

Samantha Wade

In her PhD, Sam is working on implantable drug-loaded fibres to treat pancreatic cancer, an uncommon but devastating disease. Photo: Paul Jones

Glazes are enigmatic, dull and without colour until fired. At the right temperature, upwards of 1100 degrees Celsius, the muddy mixture fuses to the ceramic surface and becomes a thin layer of glass. The temperature of the kiln, how fast it cools and the chosen method of firing can make a spectrum of different colours from the one glaze.

“One glaze in an electric kiln will be blue, but if you do raku firing or use a gas kiln, it will go red,” Didier explains. “That’s because the atmosphere of the kiln affects the chemicals (in this case, copper) in the glaze. If you fired it again in an electric kiln, it would go back to blue.”

“You could spend your life just on glazes,” Didier continues. “And you still won’t get through every recipe – it’s endless. If you’re like Sam and you know about chemistry, then you can go deeper, but what I do is a lot of trial and error.”

And that’s not so different from scientific research.

Evil Duck sculpture

Didier produced a sculpture to commemorate a notorious campus character, the Evil Duck, a campus ‘resident’ who was loved – and feared – by students. Photo: Paul Jones

Crafty creatures

When you think of creative types, scientists might not be the first people who come to mind, but imagination and inventiveness are key ingredients in science.

In her PhD, Sam is working with drug delivery expert Dr Kara Perrow and materials engineer Dr Javad Foroughi to develop implantable drug-loaded fibres to treat pancreatic cancer, an uncommon but devastating disease. Systemic chemotherapy is largely ineffective for pancreatic cancer and surgery, the only chance of cure, is not an option for many people because most cases are diagnosed after the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

“We’re developing drug-loaded implants that can be placed directly into the tumour to shrink it down to a size that can be surgically removed to give people a better shot at survival,” Sam explains. “We start by making a long fibre which is cut down to size, about the size of a grain of rice.”

We’re developing drug-loaded implants that can be placed directly into the tumour to shrink it down to a size that can be surgically removed to give people a better shot at survival.

Samantha Wade

A line of liquid polymer is drawn through a water bath, which solidifies the strand in an instant. The fibre acts as a scaffold to encapsulate chemotherapy drugs, which are released into the tumour once implanted.

“When you look under the microscope, it has a core-shell structure – imagine a fibre with a coating around it – and there are lots of pores. The properties of the different polymers we use determine the types of drugs we can load and how fast or slow they are released.”

When we talk or learn about science, we often gloss over the process – research is a slow grind with many dead ends and U-turns along the way, an exploration led by curiosity – in favour of awesome results. For two years Sam has been fabricating and testing different types of fibres.

“There are lots of little things to tweak to get the optimal formulation,” Sam says. “It’s the same with making glazes.”

A coaxial polymer fibre

A cross section of a coaxial polymer fibre, imaged under a scanning electron microscope, reveals its core-shell structure. Image: Samantha Wade

Two heads are better than one

It’s not the first time that Didier has been called upon for his expertise. Off the top of his head, Didier talks about collaborating with a musician to construct an immersive sound sphere and working with a civil engineer to manufacture bricks made of sewage sludge, fly ash and clay as a way to recycle human and industrial waste.

Didier has also partnered with nursing staff at UOW to make mannequins so nursing students could get hands-on wound care training. More recently, Didier has paired up with his daughter, Rachelle, for another science-inspired project.

Rachelle is investigating neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease in her own PhD. Together, they built a set of sculptures to bring Rachelle’s images of brain cells under the microscope into plain sight. With ceramic pieces set into a steel frame, different colours for each compartment in the cell, the sculptures look like stained-glass windows.

“I like exchanging ideas,” Didier says. “There’s always something to learn. Like working with Sam at the moment, it’s helping her and it’s helping me, too, in a way.” Working with other people can be a seed of creativity and in the same way, collaboration underscores successful research.

Left: Sam has been experimenting with glaze recipes, like this blue-green speckled glaze. Right: One of Sam’s edible creations, a six-layer chocolate mud cake.

Best of both worlds

“The engineering mindset is different to a biologist,” Sam says of the engineers at the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute whom she works with, but it pushes her work forward. Sam started making implants from a single polymer that could encapsulate just one drug, but now she has worked up a method to deliver multiple chemotherapy drugs in coaxial fibres.

“They [the engineers] are focused on the mechanical characteristics of the material and it’s a lot more exploratory. They’re discovering what limits you can go to with a certain polymer,” Sam says.

“Then we need to think about how we can actually put that material to use and if it is compatible with cells in the body. That’s the biggest task in my project – trying to bridge materials science and biology.” Together, the team is breaking new ground.

Listening to Sam talk about her work, Didier says he doesn’t know much about science – but he knows an awful lot about the creative process. “At that high level of research, you’re not following anything because at some point there is nothing to follow. You’re trying to find something so you have to be creative. You have to find a new way of working and thinking – it becomes an art.”

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