Schenectady County

Pre-med students link human anatomy to pottery

Carol Weisse, director of the Health Professions Program at Union College, thought perhaps her pre-m

When Carol Weisse took a pottery course last year, she couldn’t escape the similarities between ceramics and the human anatomy.

Ceramic artists have long compared their work and how it’s created to the human form. Vases have “necks,” while pots have “feet,” “bodies” and sometimes “shoulders.”

The psychology professor, director of the Health Professions Program at Union College, thought perhaps her pre-med students could benefit from the lessons ceramics had to offer, so she created a new course with adjunct professor and potter Nancy Niefield called “Art and Medicine.”

“This class is something different that’s outside the scientific approach to medical classes,” Weisse said. “Like patients, your works of art can frustrate you, please you, are extremely sensitive, and need your attention.”

During the five-week summer course, students learned the basics of ceramics, like throwing on a potter’s wheel, making “pinched” pieces and glazes. The students were eventually asked to choose an internal organ and sculpt it.

Aleena Paul, a senior in the pre-med program and a smoking cessation counselor at Schenectady Free Health Clinic, created the lungs.

“Everyone says the heart and brain are their favorite, but people forget about the lungs,” she said, explaining how to her the organ means taking the time to stop and just breath every once in a while.

Weisse, who is teaching a neuroscience course alongside the ceramics class, said physicians sometimes forget to slow down.

One student said the class tried his patience, which is a good thing since he hopes to become a surgeon.

“It helped with my manual dexterity, because you have to have really steady hands to throw a pot,” said senior Mark Chaskes.

He created the human heart as a present for his father, a cardiologist.

“I figured if someone could appreciate it, it would be him,” said Chaskes, adding that he will one day take the heart back when he settles into his career.

“I could never do what my father does and see patients all day, though. I have no bedside manner,” said Chaskes. “I want my patients to be passed out when I work on them,” he joked.

Paul said the class was a “unique and novel concept” for a medical course.

“Med students get so focused on science, they often forget the fun stuff,” she said.

Friday was the last day of class.

While the students’ final projects were in the kiln, Niefield taught them about artist Daniel Rhoades and his theories about pottery as it relates to the human form.

“While throwing, the inside and outside of the piece affect each other, much like the inside and outside of the human body,” the educator and owner of Two Spruce Pottery in Ballston Lake told the class.

Their final project was an Americanized Raku piece — a Japanese fire reduction method. Unglazed portions of the clay turn black, while the clear glaze stays white and takes on a crackled look.

The students, covered in protective gear, participated in the process.

As the pieces came out of the kiln, they were sprayed with water and placed in metal trash cans with sawdust to create smoke. This blackened the unglazed portions.

Ajay Major, another senior, was excited about the process and excited to see the pieces he created. He recommended the course to all medical students.

“We have to learn to lighten up,” he said. “A lot of physicians don’t know how to relax. The course taught me how to live and let go.”

After teaching at the college for 10 years, Niefield said she’s proud her new students learned the importance of creating something with their hands, and they now understand the time and skill it takes.

“The students who chose to take the class already had a good feeling for [ceramics and the concepts taught]. They will be great doctors,” she said.

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