Research Revelations Episode 3: The art of medical illustration with Anika Mantripragada

This is the third installment of Research Revelations: Conversations with Our Student Researchers, a podcast where Aquila staff members talk to student researchers about their projects and research goals. In this episode, Aquila reporters Selina Xu and Olivia Xu meet with Anika Mantripragada (11) to discuss her work in medical illustration.

Research Revelations Episode 3

This is the third installment of Research Revelations: Conversations with Our Student Researchers. Aquila reporters Selina Xu and Olivia Xu meet with Anika Mantripragada (11) to discuss her work in medical illustration. (Selina Xu)

Selina: Hi everyone, I’m Selina.

Olivia: I’m Olivia.

Selina: And welcome back to Research Revelations: Conversations With Our Student Researchers. 

Olivia: Today we’re with junior Anika Mantripragada to talk about her work with medical illustration. 

Selina: So thank you so much Anika for joining us.

Olivia: Our first question to you is what is medical illustration exactly?

Anika: Medical illustrations can come in various different forms. The form that people are most familiar with are the diagrams and illustrations you see in your biology textbooks. But there’s so many other forms of medical illustrations that people don’t really know about. So for example, whenever you go into the hospital and you see infographics that warn you about some contagious disease that’s going on, they often have drawings and infographics on it to help present the information in a more accessible way for everyone. So that’s a form of medical illustration. And another form is comics. A lot of people, including patients and doctors themselves, like to present their experiences within the medical field or their experiences being a patient within comics. Some common examples that you might be familiar with are Smile and Braces by this author named Raina Telgemeier, which people don’t know. 

Selina: Oh, I remember that. Oh my gosh.

Anika: That can be considered a form of medical illustrations because you’re talking about an experience within the medical field. And also, if you are familiar with El Deafo, it’s another very common, very popular children’s comic, and it’s about this bunny who was deaf, and it’s from the perspective of the bunny. So through medical illustrations, the reader is able to kind of understand the bunny’s point of view, being a deaf person in this society, and the struggles they go through. So those are all different forms of medical illustrations, and there’s so many more as well.

SelinaSo how did you specifically become interested in medical illustration? What kind of inspired you to start your own work on it?

Anika: That’s a very good question. So I’ve always been interested in art since a very young age, and so art has always been a part of my life. I was professionally trained in art since middle school, especially graphite drawing. But specifically medical illustrations, I got interested in it maybe starting 10th grade, so very recently actually, because I’m currently starting second semester as a junior. So yeah, it’s been a pretty recent journey, but I think it’s been a very impactful one. I recently got interested in medicine, so like pursuing medicine as a career, so I kind of wanted to find an intersection between my love for art and medicine. And that’s where I found that kind of niche spot between these two fields within medical illustrations and medical humanities. 

Selina: Yeah, definitely.

Olivia: Can you describe the process of creating a medical illustration? 

Anika: There are two different ways I approach medical medical illustrations. If I’m doing it just to practice my anatomy skills, then I would probably start out by looking at references online of how human musculature looks. I usually like to do illustrations of body parts that have a lot of joints and are very mobile so I do a lot of anatomical drawings of hands. And so I’ll experiment with which pose I want. Sometimes I’ll look at my own hand and say, Oh, this is an interesting pose, and I think it’ll challenge me. And so then I’ll start to draw out the outline. And then there’s a software called Complete Anatomy on my laptop. And that’s one of my favorite tools ever for creating medical illustrations because I’m able to recreate this form, this position that I’ve made with my physical hand and I’m able to kind of recreate it on the software on my computer, and then I can peel away the layers of skin and the layers of musculature and if I want to focus on the skeletal system, then I can kind of delete layers within the software and use that as a reference. Or I can add layers like only the musculature and not the layer of skin on top. That’s one of my favorite tools for creating medical illustrations.

The second approach that I mentioned is sometimes I create medical illustrations for other people, like infographics or even for professors if they want me to help them display their research in a more accessible way, because a lot of medical research can get super technical. There, my approach is just listening to what they want and going through a lot of iterations back and forth seeing what they like and seeing what I can bring to the table and help the doctor think about differently. 

Selina: How long would you say a typical medical illustration takes for you?

Anika: If I’m drawing in my sketchbook, it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on how detailed I want to go. For larger projects, where someone else is involved, and I’m doing it for someone else, then I think my most recent one took 10 hours. 

Selina: Oh my goodness. 

Anika: Not in one sitting. 

Olivia: What are some memorable projects that you’ve worked on?

Anika: Recently, I worked on creating a journal cover for a professor. And that was a very unique experience, because they sent me their unpublished manuscript. And obviously, I didn’t really understand that so we had to go through a couple of meetings for me to understand what their research was about and then they kind of told me what they wanted me to depict within this cover illustration that they were submitting to this journal. In my first drawing, I was really stressed, like I really want to impress these professors and also be able to depict what they want. So my first draft was actually nowhere close to what they wanted, which can be very scary but just know that everyone’s on your side. And so after a couple more iterations, they’re like, that’s exactly what I want. Unfortunately, the drawing didn’t get picked up for the cover, but I just think it’s a really memorable experience.

Another really memorable experience was attending this summer camp at Stanford called Art and Anatomy. This past summer was the first year that they held this, and I just happened to stumble upon it. I’m like, this is exactly what I want, I need to attend this. And thankfully, I got accepted into it and I got to work with this amazing professor. She taught us so many different realms within medical humanities, including medical illustrations, and I learned a lot of what I know about anatomy now from that class, not even just being able to depict parts of the human body anatomically correct, but also learning how to depict the human body abstractly and creatively because not everything has to be exactly correct. If you want to elicit more emotion from the viewer, you might exaggerate certain things or include different things. 

I also recently held a workshop with Medical Club for the Evening of Medicine where I taught students how to do medical illustrations. That’s a good example of how much that camp impacted me and how no matter where I am, I’ll still feel the same about medical illustrations. 

Selina: Yeah, that’s so cool. And what was it like working with the students at Harker and teaching them how to do medical illustrations?

Anika: Yeah, I was nervous at first, because, you know, I only learned about medical illustrations in depth the summer before. And the workshop was in November. My first exposure to medical illustrations was in July, and then in November, I’m already teaching people how to do it. So I was pretty nervous at first. But I think like, I reminded myself, like, you know, I learned so much. And I just feel like there’s so many people who don’t know about this really interesting field. So I thought, I need to share this knowledge with people and see if there’s anyone like me who feels really hopeless about connecting their two separate interests. So yeah, that’s why I did the workshop. 

Selina: Yeah, definitely. And then what would you say is the most challenging part of doing medical illustration?

Anika: The most challenging part is definitely finding the time, especially as a student with a pretty busy schedule, it can be difficult to make time for your passions. But it is really important to make time for your passions, because that’s kind of what gives you that drive to keep going. I think another challenge is, like keeping your composure, not getting frustrated. It can be pretty easy to fall into, like a very self critical mindset when looking at your work, like, sometimes I’ll be, like directly copying from a reference. And if I find that there’s some little thing that feels off between my drawing and the reference, like, it can become really frustrating. But I think a way to combat that is to really take breaks between your work and definitely don’t do everything in one sitting. Like, I think I mentioned that one project took 10 hours, it was definitely not 10 consecutive. That’s like way too much. I think, honestly, it was like 10 hours across two to three weeks, which I see not everyone has the luxury to, you know, spread your projects across that long of a time. But definitely giving yourself time and being forgiving of yourself. Like you’re still a student, I’m talking to myself here. I’m still a student, and I’m still learning about medical illustrations, I cannot be perfect the first time around. And also a more concrete advice for going about medical illustrations is lift your paper up and compare it side by side, it’s not good to be comparing your drawing from the table to a reference   may be on a computer or like up on a wall. Because if your drawing is on the table, it can really distort your perception and you may be correcting things that don’t need to be corrected.

Selina: Wow, that’s really smart advice.

Olivia: Something I’m curious about is when you’re making your own illustrations just for yourself, what do you base your illustrations off and what inspires you in what you create?

Anika: I usually do illustrations on parts of the body that I’m more curious about and something that I want to learn more about. I am a prospective doctor. So I do know, at a certain point, I need to know a lot about all parts of the body and how they function and what they look like and the different layers. It helps me learn about how the body works while also drawing it and you know, doing it in a way that makes it enjoyable.

Selina: And I think you already talked about this a little bit. But what impact does medical illustration have in the medical field? And why do you think your work is so important?

AnikaThat’s a really good question. I think medical illustrations are super important in both the art field and the medical field. But I’ll focus on the medical field. I think medical illustrations can really bridge so many different gaps, like, there’s a huge problem of the language barrier in the medical field. And illustrations can be like a universal language. For example, if someone does not speak English, and they walk into a hospital, and they’re like, you know, I don’t really know what the symptoms for COVID-19 are, and like, I’m worried I have COVID, or a family member has it. So they’ll look at some infographics that are hung up all around the hospital, and there’ll be a picture of someone coughing, a picture of someone with a fever. And then they’ll be like, Okay, I know what those are, even if I don’t know the names in English, and they’ll be like, I can look out for those symptoms. So that’s like, one of the most impactful ways that medical medical illustrations can be applied to the medical field. And 

I think medical illustrations are also important to help provide an outlet for a lot of physicians and patients as well. Like a lot of patients feel like they can share their experiences with their doctors, because, like, it’s a very professional relationship. And so they can turn to medical illustrations to kind of display their experience that they went through and even outlined the maybe gaps that doctors need to fill in their care and be more empathetic and more. And even doctors, they are going through so many traumatic experiences in the hospitals, they can always turn to medical illustrations to memorialize patients who may have passed away, or like, point out other issues in hospitals, through medical illustrations, where everyone can understand what you’re saying. 

Olivia: And going forward, what do you hope to do with your illustrations? And how do you hope that they’ll be impactful?

Anika: That’s a good question. I think like, everything that I’ve said that I’m proud of medical illustrations for already doing, I definitely want to continue that I want art to be a way for people to not be scared of difficult medical topics. I want art to be a way for everyone to kind of understand and not feel like regular people are like, not as educated in medical topics and feel scared to, like ask doctors for help. So I hope medical illustrations can help with that issue. And also, I like the idea of medical illustrations being like a creative aspect to medicine, like, you can create beautiful artworks and paintings and drawings and even like, installation pieces relating to experiences in the medical field. And I think that’s such a thought provoking way to present medical topics. Yeah.

Selina: I think that’s it then. So yeah, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. This was a super insightful conversation.

Anika: Thank you for having me.

Selina: Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Research Revelations: Conversations with Our Student Researchers. We hope you enjoyed hearing about Anika Mantripragada’s work in medical illustration.

Olivia: If you are a student researcher and would like to be featured next, please feel free to email us at [email protected].

Selina: This is Selina.

Olivia: This is Olivia.

Selina: And we’ll see you next time.