I’m a freelance science writer adept at multitasking. But I feel like I’ve been sitting on both hands when I read the jam-packed resume of Stanford medical student Ryan Brewster.
For nearly two decades Brewster competed as a nationally ranked mogul skier, but knee injuries led to his retirement in 2011 and a new career in medicine. While studying molecular biology and biochemistry at Middlebury College, he kept himself busy as an EMT, an advocate of sustainable agriculture in Rwanda, a Spanish-English medical interpreter at a community health center, a senior admissions fellow and the co-founder and graphic designer of Ron’s Closet Apparel Company — and that’s just a few highlights. After working as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School, he headed to Stanford for medical school last fall.
Intrigued, I spoke with Brewster about what he’s doing now. I admit that I was hoping to learn his multitasking secrets, but I was also really interested in his graphic art.
How did you get started as a graphic artist?
For as long as I can remember, visual art has been an important tool for self-expression. An engineer, architect and carpenter, my father encouraged me from a young age to communicate ideas in creative ways. I spent most of my childhood drawing before teaching myself computer software, such as Photoshop, in high school. It soon became clear that this interest could be applied to all my activities — from biomedical research to community service.
My skills in graphic design and illustration have been honed experientially rather than through any formal training. Starting a clothing brand, creating visual aids for community health workers in Rwanda and maintaining a healthy habit of doodling, among so many other opportunities, has allowed me to develop technically and stylistically. My style has largely been informed by Owen Davies, Chip Kidd, Jorgen Grotdal, Frank Netter and Mary Kate McDevitt. Furthermore, I have benefitted tremendously at Stanford from the support of Samuel Rodriguez, MD; Audrey Shafer, MD; Jacqueline Genovese; and artist Lauren Toomer, who have provided many opportunities to further my training in the arts.
What have you been working on recently?
I was the student coordinator for this year’s Medicine and the Muse symposium. I designed the marketing and branding materials, and exhibited a collection of anatomy-inspired illustrations (shown to the left).
Another first year MD candidate, Jacob Blythe, and I were fortunate to be selected as recipients of the Stanford MashUp Grant. It awarded us $600 to produce an art installment. We created a 3-D collage of the humerus and associated vasculature encased in glass. The piece is based on the novel Blood of the Lamb, which concerns a young girl who passes away from leukemia. Jacob and I wanted to capture this narrative of illness using related ‘artifacts,’ including blood smears, medical charts and actual pages from the book.
Also, earlier this year, James Lock, MD, approached me on behalf of a Stanford Medicine-wide diversity committee. They wanted to make a pin to be worn by physicians as a mark of LGBTQ alliance. The design features a DNA molecule with the traditional pride colors. This was a particularly rewarding project and we hope to have the pins fabricated and distributed by the end of the summer.
And you sing, too?
Another important artistic passion has been acoustic guitar and songwriting. The same imperatives that motivate me as a graphic designer similarly motivate me as a musician. Composing and performing a song challenges you to not only bear your emotions and feelings, but also to communicate them in a way that is relatable to your audience. Knowing that so many students held identities beyond that of future physician, Stanford medical students Shay Aluko, Andrea Garofalo and I founded the Stanford Medicine Open Mic to create a space for musicians, dancers, poets and other artists to showcase their talents.
Are there other interests you'd like to mention?
In the fall quarter, I completed the course Biodesign for Mobile Health, which exposes students to the emerging field of mobile technology. My project team — comprising two medical students, an undergraduate product designer and a bioengineering PhD student — developed a platform targeting users of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Specifically, our NuLeaf team aims to provide individualized nutritional recommendations based on one’s health condition, budget, location and cultural preference. As Biodesign NEXT fellows, we have developed a functional prototype and have established strong partnerships with the Second Harvest Food Bank, physicians and other stakeholders. We hope to pilot the product with a local user population by the end of the summer.
Athletics also remain central to my wellness and extracurricular activities. Since retiring as a skier and college baseball player, I took up distance running and have struggled through several half- and full-length marathons. I am also an avid backpacker and camper. In fact, a major reason for choosing Stanford was the allure of the many outdoor playgrounds found in the state.
How do you balance your different interests?
Each of my activities serves as a reprieve from the other. Art balanced by science. The outdoors and fitness balanced by studying (unfortunately the latter wins out more often than not). Self-care balanced by community. That said, the past months have been a tremendous exercise in time management. ‘Triaging’ my commitments has not been easy, but it has allowed me to continue the things I value most.
What are your career plans as an artist and physician?
On one hand, I hope my career will marry the arts and medicine in direct ways, through medical illustration and data visualization. Perhaps of greater importance is the ethic of the artist carried by the physician. Doctors must be storytellers. They must be able to enter the patient’s world, listening, absorbing and acting on his/her narrative to inform treatment. The humanistic orientation in medicine requires the strengths of an artist — the observational skills to examine details beyond how they superficially appear, the perspective to understand information in isolation and in its broader context, and the empathy to acknowledge the human life that stands before them. It is in this framework where I see the noblest goals in medicine.
Previously: Stanford Medicine’s Open Mic: Using music and art to express the human connection, “It’s renewed my energy:: A look at medical students using art to contribute to medicine and Stanford alumnus writes children’s book to inspire next generation of curious minds
Photo by Paul Sakuma