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Student Profile: Sumana Mahata

Art in medicine inspires and educates

May 22, 2023

Sumana MahataIt has often been said that life imitates art. For University of California San Diego School of Medicine student, Sumana Mahata, medicine also imitates art. A fourth-year medical student, Mahata is quickly gaining a reputation for her incredible artwork in addition to her passion for patient care.

“In college, I organically found myself being artistic without consciously thinking about it,” said Mahata. “Growing up I was very artsy-crafty. I remember doodling in the binding of my parents’ copy of Molecular Biology of the Cell, drawing my own comics, and designing a pulley system off of our vaulted ceiling. Those experiences shaped me to be a creative person today.”

An accidental destruction of her sketches when she was eight years old led to a deep appreciation of the process of creating art. That appreciation continues today.

“If I am viewing art, I am thinking about the artist, what was going through their mind, why did they choose to paint this particular scene, how they felt as it was being created,” she explained. “My art has provided an avenue to express myself through the process.”

Getting to medical school was born out of her drive to engage in science in a way that makes an impact—in this case, helping people. That is what inspired her to apply to medical school. After not getting in the first time, she worked as a medical assistant to gain experience in the field.

“The second time I applied to medical schools, I felt that I had a better understanding of the profession and validated that I would enjoy a career that is patient-centric,” she said. “As for why I chose UC San Diego, it’s home!”

A native of San Diego, Mahata grew up in what she dubs a “double scientist” household where fruit flies were referred to as Drosophila and terms like ‘aliquoting’ food were used. She refers to a deep appreciation for family and having a solid support system as other determining factors. She notes that the UC San Diego Heath physicians that she grew up with, especially her childhood pediatrician, Dr. Eyla Boies, showed great compassion and were people she wanted to emulate in her own career.

“I knew that choosing UC San Diego meant that I would have access to research opportunities, the free clinic, global health and a variety of hospitals which would help me gain diverse experiences, especially because I came into medical school not knowing what specialty I wanted to pursue.”

Art has provided Mahata opportunities to bond with her peers and the ability to help educate both her patients and her fellow learners. As part of the iPad Learning Initiative, each UC San Diego medical student receives an iPad Air, Apple Pencil and Apple Care+ which they can keep upon graduation. Included now among other pre-loaded valuable tools, is a series of anatomy templates that Mahata created for her independent study project. She explained that the beauty of the program is technological consistency; the project was designed to make visual learning for anatomy easier for everyone and help provide universal drawings that can be used throughout preclinical and clinical years.

“My project demonstrated that art is a useful modality for medical education in visual learners,” she said.

Serving as an inspiration to others, Mahata is thrilled to know that future classes of medical students will all have access to this resource that she created.

Beyond the walls of UC San Diego, Mahata’s art has been viewed, worn, and appreciated globally. Her most famous piece of art to date is a mask that Dr. Anthony Fauci wore during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference on June 26, 2020. The mask was created using one of Mahata’s designs which can be printed on custom-made fabric. This one features an immunology-based design of neutrophils, antibodies, eosinophils, lymph nodes and macrophages.

“This particular design is a reflection of my notes for the classes I’ve taken,” Mahata wrote in a blog post about her newfound fame. “I color code each type of cell involved in the immune response so that when I need to recall information, I can do it with colors instead of words. Interestingly, this design wasn’t even a popular one until it became famous by association.”

While the “Fauci mask” helped her gain some notoriety, Mahata’s medical school journey has always included art. She taught herself how to create patterns and found an audience in science-minded people who appreciate her (mostly) accurate depictions of it. Over the years, she has sold her science art in the form of a variety of products including scrub caps, scrunchies, apparel, home décor and more that are available on various e-Commerce websites. She’s created hundreds of designs and custom pieces, some just for fun, such as stickers given to all incoming medical students and patches for all classes to logos for a variety of conferences and initiatives hosted by UC San Diego.

Her creative works have also been used to enhance understanding and patient care. She illustrates and designs graphical abstracts including one that was printed in the October 11, 2022 issue of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology and creates art that helps people understand minimally invasive procedures with The Interventional Initiative.

“I love patterns that lead to connecting with other people, be it from people pointing at the patterns on my scrub caps to emails I get about moms making quilts for their orthopod children with my bones patterns; tweets I see of neurosurgeons wearing matching scrub caps with one of my designs; and science teachers sewing masks out of my neuron pattern for their class,” she said. “I’m a creative person and cannot imagine not incorporating that creativity into my journey.”

Beyond her own artwork, Mahata has encouraged her fellow students to embrace their creative side. One of her favorite projects to organize was a socially distanced tiled mural which was created by 20 participants. She provided each person a square canvas, blue and yellow paint, and a paintbrush. The only instructions were to paint whatever they wanted. The ensuing creation shows a wide range of emotions, thoughts and ideas all coming together as one. It is printed in the 2021 issue of Human Condition, UC San Diego School of Medicine’s annual literary magazine.

Other art-related accolades that Mahata has received throughout her time at UC San Diego, include winning The Gold Foundation’s 20th anniversary Tote Bag Design contest, designing for the American College of Rheumatology’s Convergence meeting with “the Fauci design,” and being included in UNESCO’s Creative Resilience exhibit.

As for the future, Mahata is busy preparing for a move to Riverside, as she recently matched into anesthesiology at Riverside University Health System.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed being able to make an impact with my art,” said Mahata. “I hope to have a career as an anesthesiologist that incorporates art in medical education, in addition to quality patient care. I am also glad I didn’t suppress my artistic side during my interview season because I’m headed towards a program that actively nurtures it.”

She encourages current and future medical students to always keep a growth mindset and embrace opportunities to learn.

“Kindness, too, goes a long way,” she said. “I’m going to miss the friends I made in the UC San Diego Health hospitals but am excited to start anew in a few short months.”

To see more of Sumana Mahata’s artwork and science art products, visit her website.

Joyce Pritchett

Communications Specialist, UC San Diego School of Medicine