Creative problem-solving flourishes at the VCU Arts and Health Fellows Showcase

If she accidentally ate something that had been prepared around peanuts, coconuts, hazelnuts or fish, Robin Enriquez could have an allergic reaction so severe that she would have to go to the emergency room. Her first line of defense to treat an allergic reaction is an epinephrine auto-injector that she is supposed to carry with her everywhere. On April 23, however, Enriquez confessed to a room full of faculty and students that she rarely carried the injector as a young woman.

“I was very concerned with looking cool,” Enriquez said. “I didn’t want to stand out, but that could be the difference between life and death.”

Enriquez was one of four researchers who presented their projects at the Virginia Commonwealth University Arts and Health Fellows Showcase. With support from a VCU Quest Innovation Fund grant, the Arts and Health Fellows program supports interdisciplinary projects between the university’s School of the Arts and School of Medicine. Each project utilizes art and design skills to improve methods of teaching and health care delivery.

A recent graduate of the Department of Communication Arts at VCU School of the Arts, Enriquez sought to address the problem of young people not carrying their emergency allergy medication because of lack of style by designing user-friendly carriers for epinephrine auto-injectors.

“To achieve better carrying rates, my approach was to create medicine carriers for food-allergy users that are age-appropriate, gender-specific, and based on what the users have to say,” Enriquez said. She designed female carriers that were inspired by Vera Bradley wristlets and male carriers that were small enough to fit into a pocket.

As with the other Arts and Health Fellows researcher, Enriquez utilized her artistic background to address a health care need.

After graduating from the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media at the VCU School of the Arts, Morgan Yacoe decided to apply the artistic skills she learned at VCU to a medical pursuit. Yacoe teaches clay sculpture classes to residents from VCU Medical Center and produces a range of three-dimensional models to use in medical education. During her presentation, she explained how the sculpture classes help medical residents become better doctors. “Observational skills are a key to good medical education,” Yacoe said.

While the models Yacoe produces at her Richmond studio are beautiful, they also have a practical application. Utilizing art as a medium for studying a socio-economic issue proved to be a thread that tied the projects together.

“Design is much more than the construction of beautiful things,” said Laura Chessin, associate professor of craft and design in the Department of Graphic Design, VCU School of the Arts. Chessin partnered with VCU Institute for Women’s Health and CenteringPregnancy at VCU on a project titled The Healthy Baby Project, which aimed to address the disproportionately high rate of infant mortality and preterm birth in Richmond’s low-income African-American population.

For three consecutive Monday mornings from October to November, 16 graphic design students in Chessin’s class met with nine low-income African-American mothers and two fathers to discuss what it takes to raise a healthy child in Richmond. The students then created visual material based on their conversations over the past few weeks.

“Learning about empathy is an important part of being a designer,” Chessin said. “We all need to understand typography, but filling empathy into the design process is something we really reinforced.”

While Chessin’s project was primarily geared at helping a population outside of the university, Cynthia Donnell presented a project that has the potential to help VCU students.

The associate professor in the Department of Music at VCU School of the Arts partnered with Jaime Moore, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at the School of Medicine to study vocal health in voice students. Donnell and Moore enrolled 27 vocal students in a study that tracked the success of vocal therapy. During each meeting, the students’ speech was recorded with an instrument that was developed by speech language pathologists. After each recording, the students completed a ranking sheet saying how their voice felt that day. Evidence from the study suggested marked improvement in vocal health from voice therapy, and it sparked the idea of housing a voice clinic at VCU.

“If all goes according to plan, we will have a voice clinic on the Monroe Park campus in the Department of Music,” Donnell said. “I don’t think anyone in this room wants to see another of our patients going down I-85 to Durham or up I-95 to Philadelphia for their vocal health care.”

As the only university in the country with a health care fellowship that spans the arts and theater programs as well as communication and design, VCU is establishing itself as the place to be for arts and health research projects.

“Our goal is to make VCU the premier university in the country at arts and health collaboration,” said Aaron Anderson, Ph.D., associate professor and associate chair, Department of Theatre, VCU School of the Arts.

 

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Associate professor of graphic design Laura Chessin presents her work on The Healthy Baby Project at the 2015 Arts and Health Fellows Showcase.
Associate professor of graphic design Laura Chessin presents her work on The Healthy Baby Project at the 2015 Arts and Health Fellows Showcase.
Alan Dow, M.D., assistant vice president of VCU Health Sciences’ Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care, presents on the national significance of the Arts and Health Fellows program at VCU.
Alan Dow, M.D., assistant vice president of VCU Health Sciences’ Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care, presents on the national significance of the Arts and Health Fellows program at VCU.
Researchers and collaborators from the VCU Arts and Health Fellows program answer questions from the audience after presenting their work.
Researchers and collaborators from the VCU Arts and Health Fellows program answer questions from the audience after presenting their work.