From Microscope to Canvas: The Art of Pathology

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By Mindy Loya, MD Anderson Staff Writer

Imagine that after a long day in meetings, training others and getting your work done, you find a blank canvas sitting in your chair. Scrawled on the plastic wrapping are the words "Just Do It."

This is the challenge Lauren Langford, M.D., issued to a fellow colleague in 2010.

An associate professor in Pathology at MD Anderson, Langford grew up in an artistic household, never far from a camera. And, in her eyes, her fondness for photography and art fits hand-in-hand with being a pathologist.

"When I say I look at the human nervous system, I mean it," Langford explains. "Pathologists look at shapes and colors on slides through a microscope and compare what we see to other images. And then we photograph the slides for use in teaching, publications or tumor boards."

Extracurricular Artistry

Langford says art never was encouraged in medical school or in her pathology training. She was lucky to land a job in a research lab with a darkroom where workers developed their own negatives.

"The person who trained me didn't discourage personal work, because the more you developed, the better you got. So, we'd print our black-and-white pictures from the weekend."

In the 1990s, Langford used what was then a new media, the CD-ROM, to share photographs of diseased cells with pathologists, neurologists and neuro-oncologists. "It was an exercise in art. I wanted to adjust the colors and present the images in a way that was easier than looking at glass slides."

An Idea on the Move
While Anais Malpica, M.D., never abandoned her creative upbringing, she says it took a backseat to medical school, her pathology training and raising a family. "I felt something was missing," says Malpica, the recipient of Langford's blank canvas challenge.

"A pathologist must be hyperaware. Unlike the relationship a physician can have with a patient, our slides can't talk to us. So, it's up to us to recognize variations in color, shapes and cell patterns."

Malpica says that just as a museum curator must know a real Picasso from a fake, so must our pathologists discern among healthy cells, cancer cells and those that mimic the disease.

And now, Malpica encourages her trainees to pursue a visual art.

"It's a teacher's responsibility to make sure a student is independent," Malpica says. "And it's the ones with trained eyes -- who aren't following a formula -- who can analyze a slide and confidently render a diagnosis."

Malpica adds that the medium doesn't matter. Another colleague, Diana Bell, M.D., focuses her artistic expression on underwater photography.

"I love bold, bright colors," Bell says. The assistant professor in Pathology has been snapping photos of coastal coral and sea life for the past 10 years. "Pathology really is a mix of art and science.

A New Perspective

Despite her desire to use art as an escape, Langford expanded her range to include pathology-related paintings. One such painting, "School of Cells," was named Best in Art in Pathology at the 2011 United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology's annual meeting.

This is the first year the academy offered an art competition as part of its annual conference, and the entries varied widely. A committee chose pieces from those entered to be shown in the competition. Langford showed six pieces, Malpica showed two collages and Bell showed one of her underwater photographs.

"Everything we do is based on pictures. How well we train our eyes to see the world around us affects how well we analyze what's under our microscope."

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