Two students from the Life Sciences and Pre-Medical Illustration program at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University recently had their classwork elevated to a global stage at prestigious annual events hosted by the Association of Medical Illustrators and the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.
Current student Sophia Forystek and 2023 graduate Katie Lee both had pieces displayed in the 2023 AMI Salon, while Forystek also had a piece accepted into the juried 2023 GNSI Member’s Exhibit.
Both events feature some of the best work being created by practicing visual science communicators today. And while submissions are solicited from both student and professional members, it’s rare for undergraduate student work to make the cut.
Life Sciences and Pre-Medical Illustration Program Chair Kevin Brennan sees the professionally oriented nature of the program reflected in his students’ success.
“This participation in the main professional organizations demonstrates new levels of student engagement in the field,” Brennan said. “These accomplishments are expanding the reach of our program and demonstrating the diversity—in choice of media, technique, form of representation, and subject material—and quality of the research and final works that our students are producing.”
For Forystek, who’s finishing up her senior year at KCAD, the recognition is fuel for what comes next.
“To see my work held in such high regard makes me feel more confident about the future,” she said. “I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I’m happy that I’m able to keep up with established professionals.”
Forystek’s “Lateral View of the Newborn Skull and Vertebral Column,” featured in the AMI Salon, and “Medial View of the Knee,” featured in the GNSI Member’s Exhibit, are prime examples of the impactful work medical and scientific illustrators do.
Both pieces seamlessly integrate clear, detailed, and accurately rendered illustrations with complex scientific information to distill complicated subject matter into accessible visual communications.
Such work supports the development of students and practitioners of science and medicine, and it also enhances the ability of medical patients and the public to better understand their own health and be more connected to the natural world.
A desire to help bridge that gap is ultimately what led Forystek to KCAD. An avid artist from a young age, she was enrolled in a nursing program on the other side of the state when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her education online.
She and her classmates quickly found themselves struggling to learn how to do things like handle clinicals and draw blood in a virtual format. The challenge awakened Forystek’s latent creativity an opened her eyes to the urgent demand for the kinds of materials she’s creating now.
“Communication is key in health care, and most people can relate to the feeling of being in a in a doctor's office and not fully knowing what they’re talking about. You get overwhelmed easily when you don’t feel educated enough to make your own decisions,” she says. “I really want to be involved with making it easier for practitioners and patients to communicate.
Lee took more of a traditional art approach to the two pieces she had featured in the AMI Salon, “L3” and “Between L5 and the Sacrum.” Both are part of a series of papercuts of the transverse abdomen she created with the intent of mirroring the appearance of a CT scan.
The anatomical forms were cut from black paper and affixed to a white paper background before being encased in plexi-glass so viewers can see through them. Brennan laser cut the pieces into black acrylic for display at the AMI Conference.
Like Forystek, Lee feels validated and motivated by her inclusion in an internationally recognized professional forum like the AMI Salon.
“It feels wonderful to be able to show professionals my art,” she says. “It made me feel confident in my abilities and gave me the confidence to submit my art to more shows.
Post-graduation, Lee is pursuing a graduate degree in mortuary science, a path she was inspired to take through the Life Science and Pre-Medical Illustration program’s close collaboration with the nearby Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
As they strengthen their core creative and visual communication skills at KCAD, students in the program are also growing their scientific knowledge through histology and gross anatomy classes at MSU—as well as biology, cellular biology, pathophysiology, and medical terminology courses at Ferris State University and Grand Rapids Community College.
That includes access to MSU’s cadaver lab, where Lee first discovered the inspiration that’s steered here toward her current career path: becoming a licensed funeral director who specializes in restoration techniques that prepare the deceased for a funeral service, from minor touch-ups to full facial reconstruction.
“I’m actively doing a practicum at a funeral home where I get to have on-site experience with cosemtizing and restoration of the deceased,” she explains. “I think this is an excellent career path for me because it's a way that I can use my artistic and scientific knowledge while being able to simultaneously help families. I've always loved combining my art with science in ways that can be helpful to other people.”
The desire for a career of service is common amongst Life Science and Pre-Medical Illustration students, and that has a lot to do with the culture of support that exists not just in the program, but in the field at large.
Forystek says she’s found a helping hand at every turn of her education, from Brennan—who is a certified medical illustrator and AMI fellow—and his colleagues at KCAD and MSU, to the visiting professionals invited classrooms to share knowledge and experience, to program alumnus Tess Marhofer, who graduated in 2014, an independent medical illustrator who has since become a mentor in the area of ZBrush and other industry standard digital modeling tools.
“I'm grateful to have all these peers and mentors helping me, because in medical illustration that's really what it’s all about,” Forystek said. “On every piece I create I’m working with others to make it the best it can be, and that’s only going to continue once I get out of college.”
Lee points to the program’s involvement with the AMI, GNSI, and other professional organizations as another key source of support.
“They were valuable resources to me as a student and helped me investigate career opportunities,” she says. “I’m grateful for the connections that KCAD was able to give me and for helping me have the opportunity to engage with other professionals and their work in order to expand my portfolio.”
Lee, Forystek, and other emerging professionals are entering the industry at a time of tremendous growth. According to the AMI, the employment outlook for medical illustrators and related positions is poised to continue its upward trajectory due to the highly specialized nature of the work and the relatively low number of new professionals graduating each year.
Not to mention rapid advancements of medical research, technology, and treatments, which will require effective visual communication to take root. For those like Brennan, who contribute to the industry through both practice and talent development, it all adds up to a world of opportunity for those looking to make a difference with their creativity.
“There is a wide range of directions that students can pursue with this degree and our industry and academic partnerships offer opportunities to explore areas of interest,” he says. “Medical technology, surgical devices and surgical techniques are constantly evolving, and there’s increased diversity in representation in training materials and patient education. All of this requires skilled visual communicators who can translate these complex topics into media that meets different audiences where they are.”