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  • Dr A Bashir

36 Storyteller

As I continue to reflect on the jubilant week that was the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, I am beyond thrilled to share my conversation with Icahn School of Medicine medical illustrator Ni-ka Ford. In Storyteller, Ni-ka and I chat about her life-long love for the visual arts, the artists she is most inspired by, and her path to becoming a board-certified medical illustrator. We also talk about the complementary nature of science and art while discussing hler involvement in SciVizNYC, a conference that brings together 'visual science communicators, researchers, clinicians, journalists, artists, and enthusiasts for an event focused on visualizing science.' Importantly, we discuss how empowering medical illustrations can be for patients wanting to learn about their own bodies and experiences, and for physicians and clinicians who use artistic reference materials to better understand their diverse and dynamic patients. Lastly, we dissect her passion for storytelling through art and science.

You'll find the audio version of this episode on our website, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, and more.


The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.

Dr Asma Bashir: Whose story do you most want to tell? Is it a story of a people, a society, existence? Is there a story in mind that if you look at your life and your career, you'll feel like, 'Okay, all of my work was a portfolio of sorts to tell this story'?


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AB: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Ni-ka Ford, an academic medical illustrator for the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She previously completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art at Georgia Southern University and her Master of Science in Biomedical Visualization at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ni-ka is also an illustrator for the Wunderman Thompson Health4Equity Center of Excellence, an initiative to track racial inequities across pharma and healthcare. As an active professional member of the Association of Medical Illustrators, she serves as the Co-Chair for their Diversity Committee. I'm so excited to chat with Ni-ka today about her work as a board-certified medical illustrator, but let's start from the very beginning—Ni-ka, what's your story?


Ni-ka Ford: Oh, man, where do I start? I've been an artist my entire life, and I think we were all artists when we were three, four years old, right? But I just was drawing all the time, and I'm really lucky to have parents that really fostered that, so I ended up attending a magnet visual and performing arts high school.


AB: Wonderful!


NF: I took a lot of art classes throughout high school, so that really is what spurred my interest in becoming an artist, career-wise, when I got older. With that, I followed into university. I went to Georgia Southern University, studied fine art, and it was there that I discovered medical illustration. I actually didn't find out about medical illustration until I was completing my junior year, so I was 21 around that time. It's definitely a small field, a very niche field that's not well-known at all, but throughout my time at Georgia Southern, what I was really focusing on with my art was anatomy and science, but in a very representative, kind of artistic, surrealist way. It was nothing that was too accurate to what actual depictions of anatomy are. It was more like I was inspired by it. That started to come through the paintings that I was creating. So, one of my illustration teachers came to me and said, 'Hey, have you ever heard of medical illustration?' At that point, I was like, 'What? No, what's that?' And that's how I found out about the career. I had no idea, so after I researched it, I realized that was exactly what I wanted to do.


I think what really spurred that interest while I was completing my art portfolio was, I remember looking out the window one day in my art class, looking at a tree, and I was seeing how the branches kind of bifurcated and branched out, and it reminded me of the veins and arteries in our bodies. That was kind of that ‘aha’ moment. I feel like when I was creating my art pieces in school, I wanted to combine science and anatomy with it. I just remember that moment very distinctly in my mind: the correlation between anatomy and nature. So, after I researched medical illustration, I decided that that's what I wanted to do, but at that point, I had no background in science, which is required to be a medical illustrator.


I graduated, [and] I had taken no science courses at all. What I did was I became a post-baccalaureate student and I took some science courses as a post-bac in Atlanta for about three years, as a part-time student. With that, I was able to take things like comparative anatomy, chemistry, biology, immunology, courses like that that were required to get a Master's or to apply for a Master's program in Medical Illustration. Once I got that background, then I applied. At that time, there were four accredited schools in medical illustration in North America. Now there are five, but at that time I applied to schools, I got accepted into University of Illinois, Chicago and that was a two-year Master's program in Biomedical Visualization, which is more of a fancy term for medical illustration <chuckle>, and I completed my degree there in 2017.


AB: Okay, how daunting was it to walk into the science classrooms after however many years it had been? I imagine you took maybe a few science courses in high school, but it had been a while. Was it scary at all or was it like, 'I got this'?


NF: Yeah, it was! <Laugh> It definitely was. I felt like, especially when I was a post-bac, I was in classes with students that had already been studying science for a while, so I definitely felt pretty intimidated, but it was just a matter of talking to my instructors and telling them my situation, and they were very understanding. With that, they kind of helped me and guided me through that process as well. That was super helpful, to have instructors that were very understanding of my very unique circumstance. And then when I started the graduate program, I was also among other people who had similar experiences as me, other classmates who were artists as a background and had to fill in the science gaps to get into the graduate program, and then there were also some of us who had a more of a science background and had to take studio art classes to get that art background before going into the grad program.


AB: The process, it sounds like, of becoming a board-certified medical illustrator is to go through one of the five schools that are accredited...


NF: That's a good point you bring up 'cause I wanted to make that distinction. Board certification is actually optional. You can be a professional medical illustrator without getting board certified. You can go to a graduate program, get a degree, and practice professionally. The board certification is a separate optional process that is basically a very rigorous test that you go through that tests you on business practices, ethics, medical science, drawing skills, and a portfolio review, then you get the CMI (Certified Medical Illustrator) credentials after your name. It kind of tests your skills as a medical illustrator. It can look really good on resumes and things like that, but it's optional. There are definitely plenty of medical illustrators who practice without certification.


AB: Okay. <Humorous> I wonder if you're gonna be honest when I ask this question... What is it like working with scientists? We can be a little annoying when it comes to the visualization of the projects or the work that we're doing! <Laugh> <Normal> Is it like speaking another language or have you kind of learnt the tips and tricks for navigating that space that you don't even really feel like you're switching between your art brain if you will, simplistically speaking of course, and your science jargon?


NF: Yeah. I feel like what I learned through the graduate school program prepared me for having those conversations with scientists, physicians, and clinicians. I do feel sometimes if it's very high-level science, it will be difficult to understand. I may ask them to explain to me in layman terms, but because I have such a background in gross anatomy and even cell physiology and things like that, normally it's a pretty easy conversation to navigate working with scientists. And it really helps when they give me a summary of their paper or their reference material. I've even had some time scientists draw out sketches of what they want, which is perfect, because it's a starting point for me. I know what they're already visualizing in their head, and a lot of times they're not artists so it'll be like, you know, squares and circles or very simple shapes, but it gives me definitely a general idea, which is super helpful.


AB: Yeah. It's a great starting point, I imagine. I remember when I was doing my undergraduate and my graduate degrees some years ago now, I did notice how little diversity, racial diversity, ethnic diversity was present in the pages of the journal articles that I was reading or the textbooks that I was using as reference material.


NF: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.


AB: Has it changed? Is it starting to change? And what is the current landscape in your experience of the field of medical illustration?


NF: Yeah, I had similar experiences as you. I feel like growing up and through school, I also didn't see much diversity in the textbooks that I was using either. I would say within recent years, it's definitely starting to change. Within the last five years or so, I've definitely seen a big change in that, and I feel like a lot of medical illustrators are now aware of this problem that we've had, this white male archetype of a slim athletic body that you see in all these anatomy textbooks for years. We're very aware of that, and I do know a lot of medical illustrators who are working on changing that and [are] including more racial diversity, and not even just racial, but also showing different body shapes and sizes, elderly bodies, trans and non-binary people. Like, there's been a lack of representation all around in these kinds of materials.


I've even seen changes on more of the client side, so companies that hire medical illustrators, I've seen initiatives by them to hire medical illustrators specifically for the reason of showing more diversity, so that's been great to see on both sides. I've even had clients that I've worked with that have asked me, 'Hey, can you depict a Black woman in this illustration?' It's really nice to have clients that are aware of that too, so I'm not like having to push for it as well. It's a collaboration between the two. I think that all around there's a general awareness now, and it's one of those things that's gonna take a long time to get it to the point that we want, but at least now people are aware and it's something that we're actively working on.


AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>. Is there any push-back potentially of, 'This is the way it's been, there's nothing wrong with the way it's been,' or is there a general consensus of understanding that the world around us looks dynamic and diverse and our reference materials should reflect that?


NF: Yeah, I haven't personally experienced any push-back really from anyone that I've worked with, which has been really great. I do know some medical illustrators that have experienced that from clients, but generally there's definitely an understanding of how important it is. This idea of a standard body type is so harmful because it makes everyone outside of that feel like their bodies aren't normal, when in reality everyone's body is normal; what's normal is that there's no particular standard body type, and that's the beauty of humanity, the variety.


AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>. Okay, I have a bit of an odd question. I would say that I lean more towards science, but I do have some artistic inclinations, especially in the space of writing, poetry, and spoken word. When I'm in the science space, I tend to use art as my release. If you are an artist, <laugh>, what would you say is your release? I imagine it's not science <laugh> or it might be, I don't know! But do you end up having releases that are in other spaces? [If] you're feeling a little overwhelmed, stressed out, [then] this is something that can be a form of catharsis and all the wonderful warm feelings that come out of being in a safe space. What is your release?


NF: I love that question! I would say my release is still art, but not medical art. When I was completing my undergrad, I loved using oil paint, so that's kind of stuck with me now, so I still paint and I love doing that. It's definitely therapeutic for me. I think I draw inspiration from whatever I'm feeling at the time. I draw inspiration from, I would say, myself and other Black women that I look up to, so I still do oil painting on canvas and it's really nice because what I do for work is all digital. When I do medical illustrations, I'm always on Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator; I'm on the computer constantly. So, having that traditional art, and still having that as a form of release and I guess it's just joyful. And there's no stress behind it. So, yeah. I still use art, but just a different form of art.


AB: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I love that you mentioned oil painting. I did wanna give a little shout out to the Black in Anatomy crew because you were leading an [oil painting] session not too long ago and showing us very challenged scientists how to draw a coronal slice, I think, of the kidney, and it was so interactive. You were phenomenal, I must say!


NF: Thank you!


AB: [You're a] great teacher! And I imagine you'll be phenomenal if you continue in this space. Is this something that you're interested in doing, teaching others how to create art and enjoy art in the science space?


NF: Yes, definitely. I really love doing that, and I've done that with Black in Anatomy for the past two years, and that's when I realized, 'This is something that I definitely would love to continue.' Ideally, I'd love to offer a painting class to scientists, or scientists who maybe want to have me come to their lab and do a painting class in-person, virtually, or however that looks like. And I think it's really awesome for anyone to really use art creatively as a form of release or for fun like you were saying. And as a scientist, I think that it can help spur ideas even within your research. I definitely think there's a connection and it's intertwined. You don't have to be a skilled artist to practice art or to do art or to use it for some reason. I definitely think there are other things that can come out of just being creative and exploring that side of yourself.


AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>, I hope people are encouraged to reach out to you to accommodate that into their programs. I think we tend to silo people a lot and say, 'These individuals have been studying science for this many years—they are scientists and that is it,' that is the final descriptor of this person's identity. And the same, I believe, is true in some spaces within art. 'You are an artist, that is it.' You have an art person, you have a science person, when I think we're a little bit of both, or a little bit of many things because science and art are just two aspects of who you can be and what you can aspire to do career-wise, but there's also philosophy and thought and all these other things that can be mixed into that. I hope people do reach out to you to organize that within their own institutions. You mentioned Black women that you're inspired by and it is very natural that my next thought was, whose work are you most inspired by?


NF: Yeah, I definitely have people that I'm inspired by who are visual artists and then the people I'm inspired by who are medical artists. One of my favorite painters who's a Black woman is Lina Iris Viktor. I love her work. She uses a lot of gold, and it's very meticulous with a lot of detail in the background, and the way that she depicts the women in her paintings, it just really draws you in and it's just... It's gorgeous work. I would say another person, Kehinde Wiley, a man obviously, but really inspired by his work as well.


AB: What inspires you about his work?


NF: I love the way he ingrains a figure within the background, but also the background is part of the foreground. I think that's very interesting to me, and I love artists who use a lot of detail in their work. I think for me, I love studying things, so when I can get really close to a painting and just look at a thumbnail and just the thumbnail—which is basically like a small section of it—can be its own painting itself, I really love that, kind of reminiscent of someone like Chuck Close, who also uses tiny little squares of illustrations that make a bigger piece, a bigger painting. I love stuff like that. And one of the medical artists who I'm really inspired by is Sarai Llamas, and her work is really cool. I love it because she's very creative and with her approaches to medical art, it's very editorial. So, editorial art basically is summarizing a concept in a picture and it's very conceptual, so drawing on different elements for a particular meaning in one piece, almost like surrealism in a way.


AB: Okay! I don't know if you have a kind of schedule that you could answer this question, but I'll ask it anyway: could you walk us through a day in the life of a medical illustrator? What is a Monday like for you, for instance?


NF: Sure! For me, it definitely consists of meeting with clients. Now, with the pandemic I'm meeting over Zoom, but before it'd be meeting in-person and we discuss the research. I would say in one particular day, I may work on anywhere from three to six projects at a time, so I have a lot of work. I'll do small incremental steps to each project over time, so it will take me several weeks for one project, but that's because I'm working on that same project for just an hour or two each day of the week or a couple days a week. In one day, I may work on a sketch for one project, meet with a couple of clients, work on rendering another illustration, so there's a lot of variety within my days, which is really what I like about working at an academic institution or medical school where I work because I'll work with a surgeon, I may work with a research scientist, a faculty member. All of my projects will be very really different, spanning anywhere from something on the micro, cellular level to gross anatomy. It's nice to have that amount of variety with what I'm doing.


AB: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And it sounds like you're going to get even more variety sometime soon, because I know you're considering freelancing! Is that true?


NF: Yeah, I am. I'm transitioning into full-time freelance in the new year and I'm super excited because it's been one of my long-term goals for a while and I feel like I'm ready to take that leap. I've been fortunate enough to be able to do freelance work on the side of having a full-time job, and now I'm ready to transition into taking my freelance work full-time. I'm super excited about getting my own clients, working on projects that I'm really passionate about. And I think I'm just really excited about the freedom that it offers, the autonomy over my schedule and things like that. Yeah, I'm really excited.


AB: That's so exciting! And I imagine that means that you can also have more international clientele because you're not really restricted to the academic institution where you're currently working. Is that something that you've also considered or are considering?


NF: Yeah, I'm definitely considering that! I've had one international client so far and it was from someone from Australia who found me over Twitter actually. I'm definitely interested in garnering more clients across the globe and outside the US. That would be amazing.


AB: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But while you're still based in New York, you are a part of the SciVizNYC conference, correct? Could you tell me a little bit more about that?


NF: Sure! I joined the SciViz team when I started at Icahn School of Medicine. SciVizNYC is a conference that's been going on since 2017. I joined in 2018 when I moved to New York—I'm from Atlanta, Georgia originally—and it's been a conference that we've hosted at Icahn School of Medicine in collaboration with Scientific American. The purpose of it is to bring together science communicators for a number of talks at a half-day conference. It's really for anyone interested in science and art, so researchers, clinicians, journalists, artists, anyone interested in science and art combined. We have talks ranging from data visualization to fine art, storytelling through art, science research, as long as it has a visual component. So, pre-pandemic, it was in-person, and then we started offering the conference virtually, and all of it is free! All of the past recordings are listed on the website, so that's sciviz.nyc if you'd wanna look at past talks!


AB: Oh, sweet! I definitely encourage my listeners to check that out. I love that the pandemic has offered a lot more opportunities for people who might not ordinarily have access to these kinds of events to access these kinds of events.


NF: Exactly, yeah!


AB: Okay. My last question of the day: do you have any advice for young artists or even young scientists who are thinking of pursuing a career in this space, in medical illustration?


NF: I would say... So, I took the traditional path, which was getting a graduate degree in medical illustration, but it's not necessarily necessary to get a graduate degree. I know people who have gotten their PhDs who are interested in going into medical illustration, so maybe you've already gone through school and it's something that you're interested in. I would say there are definitely a lot of resources and tutorials online on medical illustration or about science visualization, so definitely [do] research into that and [see] what you can find online as far as helpful resources.


I would say what's really important is being able to story-tell science. I think of myself holistically as a storyteller, and then all of the skillsets that I have kind of fall under that umbrella of being a storyteller, things like graphic design or layout design, color theory, principles of art, and then research skills, being able to research anatomy—all those things kind of fall under the umbrella of storytelling, I would say. I definitely think that artists and scientists are storytellers in their own rights, so combine those two things. Wherever you have that strong suit, whether it's art or science, supplement that with the opposite. If you're a scientist, take some figure drawing classes, learn about principles of art and principles of design, and if you're an artist, study some anatomy. There's tons of resources to learn anatomy. I think it's really helpful, and when it comes to communicating with scientists as an artist, [you] kind of understand the body already so they don't have to explain everything to you. Having that general understanding of anatomy, I think, is just a good foundation for an artist who'd want to go into that.


AB: Okay, I lied. I have one more question based on what you just said! <Laugh>


NF: Sure! <Laugh>


AB: You mentioned storytelling and I love that. I love that because I think that's something that I also hold true. I think storytelling is a key part of the work that I do and the work that I hope to do in the future. Whose story do you most want to tell? Is it a story of a people, a society, existence? Is there a story in mind that if you look at your life and your career, you'll feel like, 'Okay, all of my work was a portfolio of sorts to tell this story'?


NF: Wow, I've never thought of that before! <Laugh> It's a good question. I think when I look at my portfolio as a whole, I don't know if there's one particular story that I'm telling because, like I was saying before how I have so many different clients, it's really based on what my clients are wanting me to portray with their research. That can be anything across all different kinds of departments of medicine or science, so I don't know if there's one particular story that I tell, but I will say that a common thread that's between everything is that I'm educating people about their bodies, and the viewer could be a patient or the viewer could be a resident who's maybe learning a new surgical technique or whatever that is. I think that it's educating the viewer about anatomy or about their body or maybe the body that they're going to be practicing something on, so at the end of the day, I think what's happening as a medical illustrator is that you are improving the health and wellness of the people that you're serving.


Whatever community that is, I think that medical illustration is very monumental to education in that the people that practice as far as physicians and clinicians, the way that they practice in their place of work is really what they've learned in schooling. Those visuals are huge as far as [what] we think about [in] their training. As a medical illustrator, I'm impacting people's health, so it's really very, very important work. I think that would be a common thread; I'm helping people with their health at the end of the day, understanding their health or providing healthcare.


AB: It's important work. It's beautiful work. I was checking out your portfolio not too long ago on your website. Drop your website so people can check it out!


NF: Thanks! Yeah, it's www.nikaford.com.


AB: And your socials are?


NF: Yes, I'm on Twitter. That's at @NikaFord_. And on Instagram, I'm @n_biovisuals.


AB: I think everyone should check out your work. You are an incredible teacher and, with my firsthand experience, I think I can say that! You, I think, have a glorious future ahead of you. You're on an amazing path already, but I can tell that the clients that you have in the future are going to be beyond satisfied, elated with the work that you do for them, because you take in a lot of information, you synthesize it, and you create the most beautiful creations. All the best to you, and thank you so, so much for joining me here today.


NF: Thank you so much! I appreciate that so much. Thank you.


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