October 2014 | ISSUE 14
The Art of Medicine: LKCMedicine inaugural cohort gets creative for commemorative artwork
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By Andrea Loh
Higher Executive, Communications & External Relations


Medical humanities at LKCMedicine

The commemorative artwork, commissioned by the School, and co-created by the inaugural cohort is an example of how medical humanities can be applied outside of the curriculum.

Taught over 12 lessons during the first two years of the MBBS course at LKCMedicine, medical humanities – a unique aspect of the School’s curriculum – has the potential to greatly enrich clinical practice teaching. Medical humanities focus on how culture is influenced by medicine and vice-versa.

Through patient narratives, film, literature, art, music, sculpture and poetry, which focus on the lived experiences of doctors and patients, this module helps to enhance students’ ability to see medicine from other viewpoints; viewpoints traditionally shaped by humanities disciplines and cutting-edge critical theories, such as cultural and structural competencies.

“Nowadays, medical students are trained to examine and diagnose patients based on data generated by machines. But by doing so, we run the risk of merely diagnosing tissues and cells, not human beings,” said LKCMedicine Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities Harry Wu.

In the past year, LKCMedicine students have attended medical humanities lessons on topics such as professionalism and illness narratives. They have written poems which encouraged them to explore their identity as medical students and think about the type of doctors they hope to become.

While it does not form part of students’ formative assessment, prizes are up for grabs.

“These lessons are a good chance for the students to develop skills to become well-rounded doctors,” said Asst Prof Wu, who is also Assistant Professor at NTU’s School of Humanities & Social Sciences. “In Singapore, there is a general feeling that doctors are paternalistic, authoritative and cold. By adding medical humanities to the curriculum, we hope that will change.”

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Singapore, the tranquillity of the clay studio at Jalan Bahar is shattered by a torrent of slapping, banging and laughter. The usually muted sounds of the potter’s wheel in the studio are interrupted almost weekly by the chatter of LKCMedicine’s inaugural cohort hard at work.

For the last two months, the students have been creating different sized ceramic discs which will form part of an artwork to commemorate the School’s first cohort, which was admitted in August 2013. They are guided by Jalan Bahar Clay Studios (JBCS) ceramicists Dr Suriani Suratnam, Sutopo Ngasiman and Hiroko Mita – mentees of one of Singapore’s living artistic treasures, Iskandar Jalil.

In July 2014, the School commissioned lead artist Dr Suriani to conceptualise a unique piece of collaborative art that builds on the School’s emphasis on medical humanities and can become a landmark on NTU Campus. Drawing on biology, medicine and mythology, Dr Suriani’s concept, Apollo’s Dream, brings to life the duality of life and death inherent in medicine.

“The starting point for this project is the basic building block of life – a cell – which is an essential aspect in the study of medicine. The ceramic discs therefore take on a circular shape,” said Dr Suriani. “The circular shape also represents the life cycle – of birth and death; experiences which doctors encounter much more than any other profession.”

Before working on their discs, the students spent two afternoons learning about pottery, which was a new art form for many of them. After that they came up with individual designs to express their own vision and aspirations as medical students.

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Dr Suriani taking students on a tour of the studios during one of the introductory workshops (top); students learning the basic pottery techniques (bottom)

“When the students work on their individual discs, I hope they can draw inspiration from their experiences as medical students and think about their aspirations with regards to their profession as future doctors,” Dr Suriani added.

While some looked to medical symbols, human anatomy and nature to let their ideas flourish, Jeanne Ng conveyed her aspiration through the design of a stethoscope.

“To a doctor, the function of the stethoscope is to listen to the patient’s heart. But through my art piece, I also want to convey the importance of listening to our hearts to tell right from wrong, as well as my aspiration of becoming a compassionate doctor who can empathise with my future patients,” she said.

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Jeanne working on her ceramic disc under the guidance of Dr Suriani (left); Jeanne's finished design, conveying her hope to become a compassionate and empathetic doctor (right)

Toh Ying Jie conveyed the importance of curiosity in healthcare workers and a desire for new knowledge through the nerve motif of his disc.

He said, “Nerve cells are very important to the human body, but there is a lot that has yet to be discovered. My design therefore serves to remind me of the importance of being constantly curious in the evolving world of medicine."

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Ying Jie sculpted nerve cells which remind him of the importance to stay curious

Besides providing students the opportunity to express their aspirations, Apollo’s Dream also serves to remind them of their responsibilities as doctors. Like the Greek God Apollo who has the ability to send diseases as well as prevent them, the artwork reflects the duality of medicine and reminds students to use their knowledge to heal and not harm.

One student who aptly reflected this in her ceramic disc is Chia Ming Li.

“I created a rose because like this beautiful flower which has thorns, medicine has both beautiful and ugly sides. In many instances, medicine cures the sick. But there are also many instances when it doesn’t,” said Ming Li. “As a future doctor, I hope to always focus on the beautiful side of medicine and remain optimistic when treating patients.”

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Ming Li created a rose, a reflection of the duality of medicine

For Eugene Leong, it is not just about translating his aspirations as a medical student onto a ceramic disc. Working on a handshake that symbolises the doctor-patient relationship, Eugene is keen to contribute to the School’s legacy. He said, “I’m very honoured to be able to do my part for LKCMedicine, especially when everyone in the School has done so much for us.”

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Eugene's disc shows  a handshake, a symbol of the doctor-patient relationship

It is these personal touches of the pioneer cohort that lend the artwork its meaning. But what makes it even more significant is that part of the materials used come from the School’s own campus.

“The main material used to create the artwork is local clay, which emphasises the importance of local roots. But other types of clay including the grey and black clay dug up from the construction sites of the School’s upcoming buildings will be used as coating to give the artwork a diversity of colours and textures. The artwork will also have blocks of wood interspersed with the ceramic discs” said Dr Suriani.

LKCMedicine’s Director of Operations & Resources Mr Tan Hee Kiang said, “The wood comes from the trunks of trees that were previously found at the Novena and NTU campuses. These trees had to be felled to make way for the School’s new buildings. But we’re happy to say that the trees will be given a new lease of life. Apart from contributing to this artwork, they will be transformed into furniture here which will be used and admired by many people. We all have a responsibility to ensure that our next generation too see that conserving and recycling is possible as we urbanise and progress.”

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Clay dug up from the construction sites of the School's upcoming buildings will be used in the finishing touches of the ceramic discs (left); blocks of wood from the trees previously found on the Novena and NTU campuses will be interspersed with the ceramic discs designed by the students and artists (right)

The funding for the artwork also holds a special meaning. The artwork was made possible through the generous donations, which volunteer fundraiser Mr Guan Ong, himself an alumnus of Imperial, sought from his network of donors.

Said Mr Ong, “Back in November 2012, I attended an Imperial College London alumni function at the British High Commissioner’s residence where I learnt more about the medical school collaboration between NTU and Imperial. The presentation brought back a lot of fond memories for me and I wanted to see how I could contribute in my own humble way to the effort that was being made by the two universities on a project where I could work independently through my own personal network. This collaborative commemorative project provided me the opportunity to do so and will represent a permanent visual statement which I am deeply honoured to be associated with.”

NTU Museum, which has also made a significant donation to the project, decided to support this project because of its significance to the School.

“Apollo's Dream is unique and important because it is the first public art commissioned by LKCMedicine. It is also the first large-scale community art installation jointly created by the first cohort of medical students and artists, and the first NTU public artwork to have a strong connection with nature and the landscapes of NTU Campus. Raw materials such as clay and trees from the campus will be used in its creation,” said NTU Museum Deputy Director Ms Faith Teh, who is also contributing her expertise in art curating and installation.

The artwork is expected to be completed by June 2015 and will be displayed as a piece of public art at the School’s new Experimental Medicine Building on NTU Campus for everyone to enjoy.

But no one will be happier to see the finished artwork than the School’s Executive Vice-Dean for Administration Professor Lionel Lee for the artwork is his brainchild. “I can’t wait to see the finished artwork proudly displayed at our new building. I’m sure it will provide inspiration to generations of students to come. For those of us already committed to a lifetime in medicine, it provides an opportunity for self-reflection and renewal,” said Prof Lee.