One of UB chemist Timothy Cook’s special fountain pens. This pen — a gift from his research group — is over a century old, he says. Dating to 1910, it’s made from chased rubber and has been restored, Cook explains.
Published March 31, 2021
Often, when the day is done — when classes and meetings are over, and when his infant twins and toddler are finally asleep — UB chemistry researcher Timothy Cook sits down to draw.
He uses a pressure-sensitive stylus to sketch on his tablet, working by the light of the glowing screen. He also has a large collection of fountain pens and inks, some kept in his office in the Natural Sciences Complex, others at home. He misses those and hopes to get back to them soon — it’s just been easier lately to create digitally, as he’s often holding a baby in one arm, or working in the dark in his 3-year-old’s room as she drifts off to bed.
His art frequently invokes his life as a scientist.
He draws the chemical structures of molecules, the hexagonal forms of benzenes, short lines signaling bonds. He maps out phase diagrams by hand. He illustrates crystal lattices and orbitals, and creates cartoons showing the states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. He sketches a cathode-ray tube, a silicon solar cell, a steel I-beam, a dish of cakey, yellow sulfur.
This art, full of simple lines expressing complex ideas, has appeared on the cover of the journal Inorganic Chemistry; in reams of lecture notes he prepared for his Chemistry 105 course; on other scientists’ laboratory websites; and on the walls of the Natural Sciences Complex, home to the Department of Chemistry, where UB has installed a mural of one of Cook’s drawings, a highly stylized take on the periodic table.
Opportunities to sketch and scribble can be elusive these days, as Cook and his wife, Sarah Cook, a pharmaceutical researcher at Enhanced Pharmacodynamics and an adjunct faculty member at UB, work together to raise three young children. Still, Timothy Cook finds himself reaching for a stylus or pen whenever he can. And amid the exhaustion — of parenting, of work, of living through a pandemic — art gives him a way to unwind from the day, to be creative, to express himself.
“I think a lot, as a scientist and a person, about being able to create things, rather than being destructive,” says Cook,associate professor of chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences, whose lab specializes in the design of self-assembling materials. “I like the idea of making molecules and constructing things and putting things in order, and I think drawing is kind of like that, too. There’s this element of making something that’s sort of a satisfying thing to do with the time that we have here.
“I value just creating things. Now that I have a 3-year-old bringing home artwork from day care, I’ll double down on that. It totally sparks joy to see her scribbles and listen to her describe these fantastic works of art… ‘Mom, today I drew your whole life in dark blue!’ It’s just so cool. And it’s not just lines on a page; it can be music, words, sand into sandcastles. I just find it so worthwhile when people spend time making something, and I love, love, love seeing my kid — and eventually kids — start down that path.”
This mural on the second floor of UB’s Natural Sciences Complex features an enlargement of one of Cook’s illustrations — a drawing inspired by and laid out in the shape of the periodic table of elements. Science-themed scribbles of equations, experiments and equipment, reflecting research themes labs throughout the Department of Chemistry, fill the center of the table. The installation was a collaboration between UB chemists, the College of Arts and Sciences communications team, and University Communications.
“A lot of this was drawn in faculty meetings,” Cook says. “I doodle in faculty meetings, and I was worried that my colleagues would think that I don’t pay attention, but I am paying attention — I just sort of feel very compelled to draw and sketch while I’m listening. When I’m in meetings, I draw molecular orbitals pictures of atoms and molecules and things. It’s just how I focus.
“This scribbly messy style started in high school when my art teacher told me I needed to stop trying to draw everything perfectly and exact. I had to start intentionally drawing messy lines that didn’t quite connect, and wobbly circles, and then it just stuck.”
Cook also created the originals for graphics that appear on windows in the Natural Sciences Complex, depicting concepts and equations linked to chemistry.
This drawing shows molecules self-assembling to form tetrahedral traps that converge on a pollutant. The art appeared on the cover of the May 18 issue of the journal Inorganic Chemistry to highlight a study by Cook and fellow UB chemistry researchers Diana Aga, Cressa Ria P. Fulong, and Mary Grace E. Guardian.
Cook sketched the cover art by hand with a fountain pen on paper, then digitized and colored it.
That was many months ago.
These days, “I draw on my iPad because the situation is often literally that I have a baby on my lap, and they’re sleeping, and I’ve got the iPad propped against that and can have one free hand on the tablet,” Cook says. “A lot of times, the babies wake up, it’s 2 in the morning, and I can’t get back to sleep, so I’ll just draw a little bit.”
But fountain pens are his real love, he says, and “I will definitely go back to that. I’m totally into that ink-on-paper feel. I just know that if I don’t do this digitally, I will never have time. Fountain pens are kind of — they take effort to maintain — you have to clean them, you don’t want them to dry out.
“Aside from looking at them and saying, ‘I have these pens,’ I haven’t drawn with my fountain pens in months. It’s kind of sad. I’ll go to these forums, like The Fountain Pen Network, where people talk about pens, and I still actively read about pens and inks.
“It used to be my thing in lectures, I’d use a document camera and write with fountain pens. Students would want to try it, and I’d give them ideas for fountain pen models they could buy. I have these boxes in my office of different fountain pen inks, and I invite them to try any of these inks at any time. Students will come and get little vials of fountain pen inks. I miss all of that because there’s a pandemic and none of it is happening. I’m never in the office anymore. But it’ll happen again — I’ll be the face of fountain pens on the UB chemistry faculty again.”
Hand-drawing lecture notes for classes has been one of Cook’s recent endeavors.
Every page is beautiful.
The ones for “Chemistry 105: Applications and Principles” contain hand-written comments, drawings of molecules, crystals and orbitals, cartoons of scientists and illustrations of famous experiments — like the oil drop experiment and gold foil experiment. A section on thermochemistry, relevant to diet and macronutrients, includes a drawing of a bag of Skittles, bright red with a rainbow, during a discussion on calories. A write-up on energy transfer and conversion incorporates cartoons of a tea cup (open system), a lidded, disposable coffee cup (closed system) and an insulated canteen (isolated system).
“I decided to hand-write all of my general chemistry notes for the fall and spring semester,” Cook says. “The students seem to really appreciate it, and I feel compelled to do what I can for them during these COVID-19 semesters. I post my completed notes, and a version that has blanked-out portions, which I then fill in as I lecture.
“Even though they are handwritten, it has everything converted to text in the background, so screen readers should be able to parse the text. For my class, the students get the notes, recorded lectures with captions and a textbook with alternative descriptions of all tables, figures, etc., so there’s lots of different ways to digest the content.”
Cook says he has been drawing “pretty much as long as I can remember.” His aunt, a scientist and watercolor painter, inspired him early on. Doodling and drawing became his hobbies as a kid: “I would spend hours doing that,” he recalls.
In college, he decided to major in chemistry, but continued to draw. He crafted some of his first digital art on a now-retired drawing tablet that his father gifted him. Back then, the drawings were mostly inspired by song lyrics, though science themes occasionally appeared. Cook’s recent art has given him a chance to combine his interests.
He has illustrated logos or banners for the websites of his own research group and the labs of others, including his PhD adviser, Daniel Nocera, and UB chemistry department chair David Watson. Cook also created a T-shirt design (pictured in this section) featuring diagrams of iconic research tools and molecular structures, along with the words “UB CHEMISTRY,” each letter drawn in white as part of a periodic table tile.
In addition to art being a creative outlet, Cook says he appreciates that drawing allows him to express himself more clearly as a scientist.
“Unlike when I say ammonia and mean ammonium, when I draw NH4+, that’s it: no confusion or potential to misspeak, and it’s so decisive,” he says. “I can communicate exactly what I want because I’m not limited. If I want to draw a scribbly polymer with self-assembled cages, I can just do it. If I want to show a nucleophile attacking a specific part of a molecule, or a particular d-orbital, I can write it in a way that people all over the world can understand.
“Words are a lot harder. I’m limited by the ones I know, in a single language, and I’m equipped with a mouth that goes faster than my brain, so I have to constantly backtrack. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is I just find it easier and more effective to communicate through drawings.”