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Thomas, Glomerular Filtration (detail), 2009.

Medical cool

A unique UIC program unites art and science.


“In our first year, we all have to make an ear,” says Meena Malhotra, 31, describing her studies in the biomedical visualization master’s program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Biomedical visualization, which Malhotra defines as “the 21st-century version of medical illustration,” has come a long way since you pored over the reproductive-system diagrams in your junior-high biology textbook.

“Human anatomy doesn’t really change much over the course of time, so many of the masters in the past have already done all of the drawings that anatomical atlases need,” Malhotra explains. “The new movement is pretty much in electronic work.”

In “Redefining the Medical Artist”—an exhibition Malhotra curated of work by the UIC program’s students, faculty and alumni that’s on view at the International Museum of Surgical Science—even the simplest 2-D illustrations were made using Adobe Photoshop rather than traditional hand drawing. Examples show what happens to the body during atherosclerosis, how the Ebola virus attacks blood vessels and how an accident victim involved in a lawsuit was injured. There are also several digital animations on display, such as a 3-D depiction of the flu virus. The exhibition’s photorealistic 3-D models, including Nathan McSpadden’s Surgical Retractors and Megan Thomas’s Glomerular Filtration (2009, pictured), are created with the same software video-game designers use.

“You know when you’re watching Animal Planet and they’ll show you the musculoskeletal system of a Saint Bernard? And then they’ll break off one of the limbs and show you the inside of it? That’s 3-D modeling,” Malhotra informs us. Her master’s thesis involves developing 3-D models and interactive animations of a dog’s hind leg so veterinarians can learn how to perform a common surgery on dogs with hip dysplasia. Like many of her classmates, she’s brushing up on her programming skills at UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL), which pioneered several virtual-reality technologies.

UIC’s graduate biomedical visualization program is one of only four in the United States; Malhotra cites its partnership with the EVL as evidence that it’s the most progressive. (UIC’s program is also the only one in the nation to offer a specialization in prosthetics—hence the silicone ear project.) Malhotra finds that the program attracts students who are torn between art and science in college—many of them doctors’ kids, like herself, whose interest in medicine doesn’t quite extend to medical school.

The biomedical visualization program is still hardcore, however. Students spend their first year taking both studio classes and lab courses such as gross anatomy, “so you have the whole cadaver thing,” Malhotra says. Their second year is devoted to research. After graduation, they tend to find work with pharmaceutical companies, medical journals or design firms. One alum, Chicago-based art director Vanessa Ruiz, created the fascinating blog, which “covers the use of human anatomy in medicine, art and design.” Malhotra hopes to work here in her hometown, but she predicts she’ll have to freelance, as few full-time biomedical visualization jobs exist outside California, Texas and the East Coast. Most people, including a depressing number of doctors, according to Malhotra, don’t know her field exists.

Malhotra and her classmates Annie Campbell, Erin Stevens, Michaela Calhoun and Michael Gallagher, who helped organize “Redefining the Medical Artist,” hope to dispel that ignorance. “I would love it if more people felt a calling to this field,” Malhotra says. “Medical artists never really show at galleries. Most medical artwork is shown within universities or hospitals because it’s so specialized. My dad and some of his physician friends will be coming to the show, and they’re still like, ‘What paintings are you putting up?’ And I’m like, ‘They’re not paintings!’?”

“Redefining the Medical Artist” runs through October 17 at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

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