Exhibiting an interest in art and medicine

Rebecca Sieburth '11
Sculpting in the art studio at Wheaton.

Rebecca Sieburth ’11 enjoys working with her hands—whether it is sculpting clay in the art studio, or handling supplies in an operating room.

It is not often that one gets to do both, but Sieburth, a studio art major who is also focusing on courses that will prepare her for medical school has. Last summer she interned at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Assigned to a vascular surgery team at a Veterans Affairs hospital, she spent eight weeks on a surgery rotation, in a role similar to that of a medical student.

Assisting in the operating room
Assisting in the operating room

Work began with rounds every morning at 6 a.m., with Sieburth carrying supplies and assisting with bandaging. Then, at 7:30 a.m., when the operating rooms opened, she would scrub in to have an up-close look during a variety of surgical procedures—from amputations to carotid endarterectomies, which involve removing a fatty buildup of plaque from the carotid artery. Under close supervision,  she occasionally got to hold a retractor to help surgeons see inside the incision site.

How did it feel, observing her first surgery? “It was riveting, and a little bewildering,” she said. “I definitely got an adrenaline rush—it was completely novel, intensely real, and very morbidly fascinating. It was difficult to believe that something so extreme was not only possible, but beneficial.”

Her interests might seem like a fusion of polar opposites, but for her they are a natural fit.

“This combination seems like the best way to reconcile my often-feuding loves of art and science. I’ve always loved art, but medicine seems like a field that is rewarding and challenging in a way that few other disciplines are,” she says.

Professor of Art Tim Cunard, who has worked in the studio with Sieburth for several semesters, notes that she has the ambition and dedication required to succeed in both art and medicine. “When she is set on a piece, time is not even an issue.”

And the skills required for art transfer well into the world of surgery, said Sieburth, who is a certified EMT, as well as a writing tutor, poet and saxophonist.

“Surgery and art frequently involve hours of careful mechanical work, and require practitioners to have finely tuned motor skills, an innate sense of three-dimensional space, and a knowledge of both the subject matter and the function of available tools,” she said. “It takes a great deal of practice to attain the physical memory necessary to know how tightly to tie a knot or throw a suture. The same principle applies to learning how to make art.

“I don’t really feel a cognitive divide between scientific analysis and artistic sensibilities—if anything, they’re mutually informative. Creativity is useful in any setting, and building a coherent logical framework is a good method for understanding just about anything.” (Wheaton’s Connections curriculum lets students experience this kind of cross-disciplinary learning on a regular basis.)

In the future, Sieburth said she hopes to find a medical specialty in which she can balance her personal life, art and continued learning—perhaps a career in urology or ophthalmology.

“Art making is my oldest and favorite pastime. It’s a creative outlet as well as a way to playfully engage the world around me,” she said, also noting that at the hospital, “I had never been more sleep-deprived in my life, but never was I happier to be so.”