Jennifer Stowe grew up loving art but she never planned on making a career of it. But sketching, storyboarding and digitally painting is exactly what she currently does as the medical illustrator and animator for Georgia Health Sciences University/UGA Medical Partnership.
“As soon as I could hold a crayon, I was always drawing or doodling,” Stowe said.
It didn’t seem like a practical way to make a living, so she pursued her interest in science. As an undergraduate, she majored in biology and planned to go to medical school. But when her school brought in a scientific illustration degree, she saw it as a way to combine her love for science and art. She even went on to take the phase 1 medical school classes as a part of her master’s degree program at GHSU in Augusta.
“As much as I didn’t want my income to come from art, I couldn’t not do art,” she said.
She now works with faculty to create drawings, diagrams and animations to help medical students better understand complicated concepts, like the body’s reaction to infection.
When faculty think an existing diagram or illustration is incorrect or not thorough enough, she works to produce a better, more accurate illustration. If an illustration doesn’t already exist, she creates one.
“My job varies, whether that’s recreating a better illustration or schematic diagram or creating a cartoon comic strip that puts things into more relatable imagery for students. Every day is different. Every project is different,” she said. “And like physicians always have new patients, I always have new projects.”
When students were having trouble visualizing the location of the brachial plexus nerves in the neck and arm, she created a new diagram and even made the students a study guide they could use to label the nerves. When it was exam time, many of the students redrew the schematic on scratch paper.
And because Stowe has taken some medical school classes, she has an idea of what the medical students are going through and where some of the knowledge gaps are. She sees her job as being a liaison between the teaching faculty and student understanding. And having that background knowledge in anatomy, neurobiology, pathology, histology and cell biology helps make her illustrations as realistic as possible.
While in the graduate program for medical illustration at GHSU, she got a first hand look at the organs and systems she currently illustrates by dissecting cadavers and observing live surgeries.
She got to see bubble gum pink-colored breathing lungs, and even got to see the purples and blues and peachy-pink colors of the intestines.
“People get squeamish. They think that’s disgusting,” she said. “But it’s beautiful because when it’s alive, you can see it—see colors that you don’t ever think about when you think of the guts.”
As for wielding the scalpel herself, Stowe performed exactly one surgery in graduate school—performing an intestinal anastomosis on a pig—so she could learn about tissue dynamics and proper suturing techniques.
She’d rather be sketching the surgery, painting it in Adobe Photoshop, or making an animation out of it.
“Some things you’re just drawn to. You just keep getting pulled back to what you’re good at,” she said. “And then doing art that has an end purpose—helping educate future physicians—is really rewarding. You don’t necessarily get that from doing a landscape painting.”