On ‘Making Lab STP’

Ravi Desai is Head of the Making Lab STP, which aims to prototype devices to accelerate biomedical discovery at the Crick at the Francis Crick Institute. He worked on the ‘Deconstructing Patterns’ exhibition providing raw materials that were used to generate micropatterns.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Ravi Desai: I received my Bachelor’s in Biomedical Engineering from University of Minnesota, and PhD in Bioengineering from University of Pennsylvania. I completed a 5 year post-doc in a Developmental Biology lab based at the Max Planck Institute for Cell Biology and Genetics (Dresden, Germany), National Institute for Medical Research (London), Lincolns Inn Fields (London) and University College London. In January 2017 I began my post as Head of the Making Science and Technology Platform at the Francis Crick Institute.

RB: What is the focus of your work?

RD: We aim to prototype devices to accelerate biomedical discovery at the Crick.

RB: How has the development of printing technology, such as 3D printing and photolithography, aided and enhanced applications in life sciences research?

RD: These technologies operate at the length scale relevant to individual cells and small tissues. Moreover, they are capable of reproducing complex patterns found in nature. They are thus key tools in helping to test hypotheses about how form and function are linked in life science research.

RB: Can you say something about your work on the Deconstructing Patterns exhibition/project and what it involves?

RD: My work was primarily two-fold:

  • I provided some raw materials that I use to generate micropatterns, and this can be seen at the end of the exhibit.
  • I helped create the raw material used in the ad for the exhibit. Specifically, I used a 3D printer to print “trenches” of text that were lowered in a slab of material. I filled these “trenches” with fluorescent beads that were 5 microns (5 millionths of a meter!) in diameter and imaged the under a fluorescent microscope in the Crick’s Confocal and Light Microscopy Science and Technology Platform.

RB: What have you personally learnt from working on this project and has it thrown up any surprises for you in regards to your previously held beliefs or intuitions?

RD: This project helped reinforce that even seemingly straight-forward ideas have complex and interesting science behind them that unfold as one begins practically making things and experimenting and trying! One’s intuition is refined through this process of making, as practical realisation and physical insight both impinge on and modify current beliefs. In this sense, even though this project was at heart help with an advertisement for the exhibition, I believe it captured the scientific mindset and process quite well!

RB: In many ways our human brains interpret information through pattern recognition and re-arranging pattern, which is an evolving dynamic process. What importance does pattern play in your work?

RD: Patterns are absolutely key to our work. We aim in our Making Lab to harness and characterise patterns that unfold in time and space, and rely on precise physical, chemical and mathematical definitions of these patterns to engineer devices.

RB: Philosophically there is a debate about pattern as an external phenomenon to be discerned in the world against the idea that humans impose pattern on experience in order to make sense of it. What are your thoughts on this debate?

RD: I’m not sure there is a “right” answer to that question, but it is clear that life has evolved over billions of years the ability to recognise patterns so there must be a benefit to being able to do so.

RB: Do you think artists and scientists share any common communication path?

RD: Absolutely! I think we all (artists and scientists included) use and benefit from pattern recognition systems. Moreover, artists and scientists may use different terminology to describe the same thing, but the way they perceive the same thing is often, I believe, fundamentally similar. This similarity can lead to a common communication path.

RB: In terms of ‘ways of seeing’ what do regard as the main meeting points between artists and scientists? And what are the differences?

RD: I think this is linked to my answer above. We see the same thing – and often try to extract patterns from whatever we see – but the language used to describe what we see if often very, very different.

RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?

RD: Yes, I agree. However, science is measureable, so it is I think a little easier to bring science to art. In contrast, it is more challenging to bring wonderful but often immeasureable artistic qualities to science.

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