Applying visual techniques to med school lessons

May 21, 2015 by Tom Avril, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Quick! When a person is deprived of oxygen, which part of the brain is damaged first?

When Michael Natter learned the answer - the , among other key regions - he promptly drew a cartoon of a dopey hippopotamus hooked to an .

Artist's sketchbook in hand, Natter, 29, is drawing his way through at Thomas Jefferson University. He says his art helps him remember and digest the torrent of information.

"I study by drawing my notes," says the native New Yorker, who just wrapped up his second year. "The way my mind works is more visual than anything else."

It started with occasional doodles in the margins. A cartoon about the function of a body part, say, or a diagram of some obscure biochemical pathway.

From there, it moved to Facebook and on to Instagram, where Natter posts several cartoons and other drawings each day for more than 15,000 followers.

One, nicknamed nikkicarn, credited him recently for success in an anatomy and physiology class:

"Not going to lie, this account is a good part of the reason I'm passing A&P II."

Another, fhasselhof, wrote: "I got a question right on a practice exam due to this picture" - Natter's cartoon of Schlemm's canal, a channel that drains fluid from the eye.

He had drawn a man wearing a T-shirt labeled "Schlemm," who waves cheerfully as he sucks fluid through a straw.

Multiple followers have urged Natter to do a book, which he is considering.

After all, medical students have been leaning on memory aids for as long as professors have asked them to cram their heads with facts. Acronyms, rhymes, songs - why not cartoons?

But long before the drawings helped Natter in the classroom at Jefferson's Sidney Kimmel Medical College, they served a more fundamental purpose.

They helped him get in.


Natter became interested in the field of medicine at age 9, when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

He gave some thought to becoming a doctor, but math and science were not his strongest subjects. Teachers saw him as "an art kid" and steered him toward the humanities.

"There were definitely numerous people who told me I would not get into medical school," Natter said.

At Skidmore College in Upstate New York, Natter majored in neuropsychology and minored in studio art, but he stayed clear of most of the prerequisites he would need for med school.

He later filled in those gaps in a postbaccalaureate program at Columbia University. His grades and score on the MCAT med-school aptitude exam, though respectable, were apparently not up to the standards of many schools he applied to. Rejection letters piled up.

Then at a med school admissions fair, he met Elizabeth Y. Brooks, Jefferson's director of admission. The school gets 12,000 applications a year for 265 spots and could easily fill each year's class with top-scoring students.

Medical schools have long used nonacademic attributes to help pick from among the high scorers. Increasingly, however, some say they engage in a more "holistic" evaluation, considering other traits alongside test scores from the get-go.

The Association of American Medical Colleges holds workshops to encourage the practice, with the view that in the rich, multicultural landscape of 21st-century America, medicine is about more than spitting out facts.

Natter told Brooks he was working on a comic book about a boy diagnosed with diabetes. She was captivated by his artistic skill and warm demeanor.

"I saw a spark in him," Brooks said. "I thought this was someone I would love to be my doctor some day."

Some other recent Jefferson students with nontraditional backgrounds include a Navy SEAL, a firefighter and a ballerina, she said.

Natter started classes in fall 2013. He had self-published the comic book a few months before, dedicating it to Brooks.

He titled it "Captain Langerhans," after the Islets of Langerhans - regions of the pancreas that produce insulin and other hormones. The masked hero fights off an army of fanged green ogres that represent the rogue immune cells that characterize Type 1 diabetes.

Natter did not start drawing his notes regularly until the end of his first year of medical school. He began uploading pictures to Instagram at the end of 2014, under the name mike.natter, drawing fans from as far away as South America and the Middle East.

The artist generally does not draw during lectures, preferring to wait until later in a coffee shop, equipped with felt-tipped pens and an 11-by-17-inch sketchbook. Square One in Philadelphia's Center City neighborhood is a favorite spot.

Natter said he derived more academic benefit from the process of visually thinking through the material than from the finished drawings.

"You're taking different pathways in your brain," he said. "In the exam, you'll remember that whole process."

And, apparently, the drawings can even help people who already know the material. Such as Brooks, who also teaches at Jefferson.

"I've learned and forgotten nephrology 1,000 times because it's so complicated," the admission director said. "But then I was looking at what Mike had drawn about the kidneys, and I was like, 'Wow, that makes sense.'"

Explore further: New MCAT shifts focus, will include humanities


Related Stories

New MCAT shifts focus, will include humanities

October 20, 2014
(HealthDay)—The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) has been revised, and the latest changes, including more humanities such as social sciences, are due to be implemented next April, according to a report from the Association ...

Giving books to kids before summer break can stem reading losses

April 25, 2015
It's common knowledge among teachers that when students return to school after the long summer break, they likely will have lost some academic ground—a phenomenon known as "summer slide." A new study, to be presented on ...

Medical students who previously attended community college more likely to serve in poor communities

September 23, 2014
The community college system represents a potential source of student diversity for medical schools and physicians who will serve poor communities; however, there are significant challenges to enhancing the pipeline from ...

Inadequate support in schools for diabetic children

July 11, 2014
The project entitled 'Young people with diabetes and their peers' led by Dr Brooks – who is a psychologist with the University of Huddersfield's Centre for Applied Psychological and Health Research – set out to examine ...

Recommended for you

Best of Last Year—The top Medical Xpress articles of 2017

December 20, 2017
It was a good year for medical research as a team at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, found that dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain. Any exercise helps, the team found, but dancing ...

Pickled in 'cognac', Chopin's heart gives up its secrets

November 26, 2017
The heart of Frederic Chopin, among the world's most cherished musical virtuosos, may finally have given up the cause of his untimely death.

Sugar industry withheld evidence of sucrose's health effects nearly 50 years ago

November 21, 2017
A U.S. sugar industry trade group appears to have pulled the plug on a study that was producing animal evidence linking sucrose to disease nearly 50 years ago, researchers argue in a paper publishing on November 21 in the ...

Female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender in medicine

November 7, 2017
When women participate in a medical research paper, that research is more likely to take into account the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.