Osmosis Spotlight: Mike Natter, Artist and MD Candidate at Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Thasin Jaigirdar
May 18, 2015

Mike Natter is an MD Candidate at Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. He received his Bachelors in Neuropsychology and Studio Art at Skidmore College and completed a Post-Bacc at Columbia University. He has also served as a Medical Illustrator at Columbia University Medical Center. At the beginning of medical school career, Michael struggled a bit because of the sheer quantity of information he was asked to learn at such a fast rate, but he managed to find success by using a personalized study method involving artwork. You can find more examples of his medical artwork on his Instagram page https://instagram.com/mike.natter.

How did you get interested in Medicine?

Despite having no doctors in my family, I was always drawn to the medical profession as a kid. That fascination only grew when I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age nine. I quickly gained a deep appreciation for the wonders of the human body as I was forced to learn how to manage my own blood glucose levels, which can be challenging at times. A complex task, normally dealt with unconsciously by the pancreas, had suddenly become my full time responsibility.

Medicine, in my mind, is more art than science. At the end of the day, you can memorize pathways, mechanisms of action or lab values, but someone can just as easily look those things up. It is the connection you form with another human being in their time of need that sets doctors apart. “The patient does not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is why I fell in love with medicine and is how I know this is my calling.

Can you share the journey you took to get into medical school?

Although my interest in medicine was sparked early, my academic strengths have always resided in the arts and not the sciences. This led me away from pursuing medicine early on, as I believed it was out of my reach intellectually. In my high school years, seeing a medical student on the subway was akin to seeing an astronaut, a great sense of awe and admiration would wash over me but so would the sinking awareness that I could never attain such goals. I eventually gained academic confidence in myself late in my undergraduate career after excelling in difficult neuroscience based courses. Upon graduating, I immediately enrolled in a post bac pre med program back home, in NYC. During my application year, I worked as an ophthalmology technician, which was excellent clinical exposure and a great distraction from the huge pile of rejection letters I was collecting. At that time, I was also working on a personal project – a comic book about a diabetic superhero named ‘Captain Langerhans.’ It had been a goal of mine to make a comic book for recently diagnosed diabetic children to help explain the complex pathophysiology of the disease in a language that they could understand. As luck would have it, I believe that is was that comic book that played a critical role in my acceptance into medical school.

I have seen some of the amazing artwork you have created as part of your medical studies. What gave you the realization to start drawing concepts as part of your studying?

I have always been a visual learner but caved into traditional note-taking and studying since ‘doodling’ was seen as procrastination. We started first year with Anatomy, which is an inherently visual atopic, so I naturally sketched most of my Anatomy notes. For example:

sample drawing

The remainder of the year (Biochem, Physiology etc) were significantly less visual, but it was now a routine, and a good one. I would find myself doodling silly cartoons off on the margins of my notes as either a way to recall something or just as a funny aside. To my surprise, when the exam would roll around all I could recall from my notes were the drawings! By second year, I had traded in my notebook for a sketchbook and I now exclusively take my notes in a sketchbook. It has made a world of difference for me, and my grades reflect that. What I found most surprising, however, was that on occasion when I would post a doodle to my Facebook page, my peers would approach me after the exam to say that my silly drawings got them some points!

What advice do you give to undergraduate students and medical school students who might be struggling a bit with regards to understanding science material and concepts?

One of the biggest misconceptions about left brained people are that they often believe they “can’t draw” or that they are not “visual learners”. I don’t believe that. I posit that we are all visual learners. The beauty of drawing for the purpose of studying/learning is that the product is meaningless, it’s the process. By drawing something out whether as a pictorial mnemonic or as a straight diagram, the visual-spatial pathways you are using in your brain are better equipped for long term memory and, I think, understanding. If you draw it, you understand it. I see this as a corollary to a memory palace (the memory device used by those ‘super memorizers’).

What are some changes you would like to see in how science and medicine are currently taught today?

We are currently at an exciting crossroads in undergraduate medical education. Many med schools have switched from the traditional 2 + 2 model and have incorporated clinical exposure earlier in the first two years. My school will be going through a curriculum shift as well, starting in 2016. This is a good first step, but I think more can be done. The concept of empathy needs to be stressed. I don’t believe you can ‘teach’ empathy to adults, but I do think we can foster and encourage it. Getting away from the grade-centric mindset of achieving “honors” would allow students to focus on more humanities electives outside the classroom. Giving students opportunities to shadow and have more patient exposure is key. I also believe that my journey to medical school should not be the exception, we need encourage those right brained students who, like me, think they can’t make it in med school, because its those individuals who I think will make the best kind of physicians.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share for individuals interested in pursuing a future in medicine?

Never listen to those that say “you won’t make it” or your numbers “aren’t high enough,” because you are more than a GPA and an MCAT score. Pursue your passion, and never lose yourself in the process. That way, the opportunities will find you.