Practicing the Art of Science

Alexis Johnson ’22 always had a pencil in her hand. From first grade onward, she doodled on whatever paper was nearby, learning techniques and tips from YouTube over the years. As her scribbles turned into complex sketches, and a high school ceramics class cemented the interest, she knew art would become an important part of life.

All along, though, she had another dream: What if that pencil was a scalpel and what if her canvas was the human body? YouTube videos of brain surgery fascinated Johnson as much as DIY sketching lessons. As the daughter of an occupational therapist and the younger sister of a physical therapist, the medical world beckoned as loudly as drawing had. Classes in medical terminology and earning Emergency Medical Technician certification finalized her future plans.

“My hands are like magic wands to me,” the Bolingbrook, Ill., native said. “Like I used tools to carve clay in the ceramics class, I’m using my hands to help people. It’s wild that I can prolong people’s lives by working on their insides.”

In search of a way to combine her interests, Johnson decided on an unorthodox path to medical school: Art pre-med with a biology minor guided by the staff in Bradley’s Health Professions Advising Center. Eventually, she hopes this path will take her to a career as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

“You don’t see a lot of art majors in med school,” she said. “I’m gaining a detail-oriented eye and critical thinking skills that show I’m well-rounded and working both sides of the brain.”

A video in a 2D design class was the first time Johnson fully recognized the connections between her disparate academics. The video analyzed design in the world and focused on all the patterns evident in nature, the architecture of life itself and how advertising uses those elements to catch people’s attention.

From the science side, exercises in stereochemistry – the study of the three-dimensional arrangement of atoms and molecules and their effect on chemical reactions – stretched her imagination. The projects required students to visualize molecules, then draw 3D models of the substances from different angles.

“I knew the disciplines complemented each other, but didn’t realize there would be so many benefits,” Johnson said. “It’s awesome to see how they’ve helped my fine motor skills, focus on detail and visualization. When I go into medicine, patience will be crucial, and that’s something I’ve definitely learned here.”

Though art is a means to a medical career for now, it will always be part of her life as a hobby or side business. When the time comes, she hopes either to volunteer for organizations that connect youth with art, add a studio at home or perhaps pursue art therapy.

“Art is something therapeutic I want to continue doing,” she said. “Beyond that, there’s a new world to see and different perspectives to gain.”

— Matt Hawkins