Health Humanities Senior, Sujal Manohar, reflects on time at Duke and on being a recipient of the Hart Fellowship

Interviewed by Cuquis Robledo | Interview transcribed by Amber Delgado

**This article has been edited since it’s posting***

Sujal smiles in the Duke Gardens. On her left are some red flowers and large banana leaves. Behind her is a dirt path.

“I’ve always been interested in doing art that can raise awareness about health issues and also reduce stigma. I think art is a great conversation starter and can increase dialogue about things that people wouldn’t have started talking about on their own.”

Sujal Manohar

The Health Humanities Lab continues celebrating all of the its seniors as they embark on the next chapter of their life. The HHL Manager, Cuquis Robledo, had a conversation over Zoom with Sujal Manohar, who double majored in Neuroscience and Visual Arts and is a recipient of the Hart Fellowship, as she reflects on how she will use her visual studies background to work in a health-related field. This interview was recorded and then later transcribed by Amber Delgado.

Cuquis Robledo: Tell me a little bit about your background and your passion for both neuroscience and art. How did you come up with this idea to do this dual degree? What sparked your interest in both? 

Sujal Manohar: I came into Duke very unsure of what I wanted to do. I took a bunch of classes my first semester and wasn’t sure of what path I was most drawn to. I did know I wanted to do a combination of an art and a STEM major coming in, based on things I’d done in high school. I’ve always enjoyed art, while also fostering a simultaneous passion for science and research. I had these two interests, but I wasn’t sure how exactly they would come together in college. I considered computer science, I considered other STEM fields, and then my second semester of freshman year I took Neuroscience 102 to try it out and see. I really loved the class. The content was so interesting and I hadn’t been exposed to a very heavy bio or psychology background in high school, and so it was the first time that I was able to learn about biology on such a deep level, thinking about the brain and how it works. It was all so fascinating to me, and I played around with a lot of combinations at Duke. I thought about a major and a minor, or a Program II, or an interdepartmental major, all these different options, and kept trying to think about a way to fit them in. I actually had some people steer me away from doing a double major because that specific combination had not been done successfully at Duke before, or at least that was the impression I got, and they said, “It’s really hard to fit this in especially with Pre-health courses.” It took a lot of planning to make sure that I was able to meet all the requirements. Also, I’m thankful that I had some AP credits, so that all worked out.

CR: I hadn’t actually seen a neuroscience and visual arts dual degree, so were there any struggles balancing the two, or was it pretty seamless to see the intersections between the two majors? 

SM: I’m very thankful that Duke was as flexible as it was in terms of allowing interdisciplinary study and also interdisciplinary projects outside of the classroom. While the two majors themselves didn’t have any coursework that overlapped, I was able to take advantage of a lot of other opportunities that were a perfect combination of the two fields. These activities brought out insights from both majors. One of those examples is working at the Nasher Museum to lead art gallery tours for Alzheimer’s patients. That was a great opportunity and I’m actually still involved with the program doing virtual tours which has been so special since many older adults are isolated right now. I think about the ways that the science knowledge and the art knowledge come together to ultimately help and better people’s lives. I learned about Alzheimer’s and the brain and the biological side of the disease in my neuroscience courses, and I knew the artwork and art history perspective, but then putting them together was a very unique experience and relied on skills from both. Ultimately art was able to connect different types of people and find a common experience and topic to talk about. I think that experience has been really powerful and meaningful for me.

The other example being my mental health thesis, which is an artistic depiction of a lot of mental health topics on campus, both positive and negative. That also combined the mental health and the science knowledge with the artistic depiction and was done through interviews. I think both the fields have allowed me to understand and connect with people better.

With regards to courses — there have been a few courses that I think did a great job of bridging together some science topics and art topics. I took Visual Cultures of Medicine, which is in the arts department, and I took two courses at the Center for Documentary Studies, Medicine and Documentary Photography, and then Children and Illness, where you do service learning and are paired with a child at Duke Hospital to teach them photography over a semester. All those experiences have been great.

CR: I’m glad you mention all those projects because on your portfolio website, I took a look at all of your other projects too. I saw the Alzheimer’s project that you did, and then the one where you taught a kid in pediatrics for bone marrow transplants about photography. How was that experience? You’ve been able to get exposed and really use your passion for art and science and actually do community service and do community engagement within Duke. How have those experiences been? 

SM: I would say my community service experiences have been the most memorable and meaningful experiences of my Duke career. Going back to the example of the Pediatric Bone Marrow Unit – I was paired with a girl there and was teaching her photography over the course of semester. That was an incredibly special experience. Not only for me but also for her – she was in isolation at the Bone Marrow Unit so her opportunities to leave the hospital were quite limited. She always had to be there and had a lot of health restrictions. Just being able to go there and provide a creative outlet – she really loved photography and used it as a way to document her experience and share her story through that new medium of expression. One of those examples that stands out to me was when she finally did get to leave the hospital, she took photos of all the places in the hospital when she was leaving, all the doors and exit signs, things a lot of people would take for granted just walking through a building. After that she took photos of flowers outside and different things that again, people often just look at and don’t give a second thought. But if you’re seeing it from her perspective as someone who spent months isolated in the hospital, to finally go outside and experience those things was a really special experience.

Photographs that a child from the pediatric bone marrow transplant unit took, who Sujal taught how to take photos.

CR: I love that. I love that photography, like you said, is a really powerful tool for storytelling and looking at other people’s perspectives. It’s true, I can see how people would take for granted the fact that they can easily exit a hospital if they weren’t in isolation. It’s such a powerful tool and I’m glad you had the experience to teach her how to use photography. Going back to your other projects, more specifically with your thesis – you wanted to focus on mental health at Duke, and I took a lot at your website and I loved how you were able to showcase the positive and negative spaces of your work, and how you were hoping to make an immersive gallery, like a therapy gallery in the wellness center. Can you tell me a little bit about your process from when this idea came to fruition and how you wanted to portray mental health at Duke in a way that maybe hadn’t been portrayed before? 

SM: This project was for my visual arts senior capstone, and also my honors thesis project for Graduation with Distinction. I’ve always been interested in doing art that can raise awareness about health issues and reduce stigma. I think art is a great conversation starter and can increase dialogue about things that people wouldn’t have started talking about on their own. I initially had the idea to do something about mental health, I’d been playing with a lot of different ideas and I created a few pieces before officially starting in senior year. I think one of the biggest artistic choices I made in the project which ties into the mental health component was the decision to depict mental health experiences rather than mental health conditions or diagnoses. I originally thought about – what if I do “this piece shows anxiety, this piece shows depression, this piece shows bipolar disorder” and whatever other mental illnesses I choose, but I realized that was a little limiting and potentially problematic for a couple reasons. One, there’s not just one experience with depression, anxiety, whatever it may be. And thinking about, do I as someone who maybe doesn’t have those diagnoses have the authority and the responsibility to really depict those issues in a respectful way? I don’t want to say “this is the experience of bipolar disorder” for example when I don’t have that diagnosis. It was important to me to highlight mental health experiences, which I think everyone can relate to – everyone has had mental health experiences, whether they’ve been diagnosed clinically or not. It also opens up the way the people see the work and makes it more accessible. If you see that “Oh, this artwork is about PTSD” and you don’t have that diagnosis, it makes a little harder to relate to that piece.

Screenshots of Sujal’s drawing from her thesis

I really wanted it to be open and something that all members of the Duke community could view and find something that spoke to them. The second thing I want to add is I took a History of Mental Illness class last semester, which was a cross-listed course in neuroscience and history. That was a really fascinating class that showed me how mental illness diagnoses and criteria and treatments have evolved so much over time, and how something we’d consider a mental disorder at a certain point in time, at this point is not considered anything problematic. For example, something like hysteria, which was often diagnosed to women who were free-thinking or doing things against societal norms. Often women were sent to asylums for this diagnosis which does not exist today. Thinking about the ways that all these criteria have changed and the way they can be influenced by society also shifted me from a diagnosis-based art project more to experiences that were inspired by interviews that I did with people.

CR: That’s great, and you touched on a really important, distinguishing between diagnosis vs. experience, because if you hadn’t experienced someone else’s mental health diagnosis, I guess it goes to say that you would want that person to share their story. So rather than do like a diagnosis art piece, I think it’s great that you made it open for experiences, because like you said, everyone has experienced some form of mental health experience at Duke. Even looking through your images, I was thinking “Oh yeah, this whole idea of perfection, and this whole idea of, which path do I go?”, that one I think really spoke to me, especially when it switched from positive to negative space, light to dark, it kind of made it seem like you’re going into this hole that you don’t know there’s a way out, if you pick one path or not. It’s true that there are students that think just because you have to go down one path, they think they’re limited to this one path, whereas, that’s not the case. So, I love that you were able to depict it and just black and white. What medium did you use for those images? 

SM: They’re all black and white, ink drawing with ballpoint pen. I think I got the pen from the Duke store. Not any fancy art materials, just a ball point pen on Bristol paper.

One of Sujal’s drawings playing with negative space from her senior thesis

CR: That is incredible. All of them were really, really well done. 

SM: Thank you.

CR: You mentioned you did interviews, you interviewed students, mental health workers. Did you interview any faculty or staff? In general, how many people did you end up interviewing for this project? 

SM: I interviewed 15 people over the course of the 2 semesters. A majority of the people were students. I talked to a couple of people at CAPS, someone at the Women’s Center, a mental health professional, and then I talked to some staff members or people that work closely with students and have a good idea of the student experience.

CR: I think that’s good. I was asking because I know that it’s great that you got all the different perspectives too. It seems like you just a good accumulation of data for your project, that’s great. 

Let’s talk a bit about your work in general with HHL, maybe more specifically with the Calla Campaign. How did you get involved in that? And for your final project, maybe you could talk about a little bit the revamping of the Calla campaign website too, and your involvement with it.

SM: I applied last year. I was going through the Bass Connections teams and I told myself that I wouldn’t apply to anything, unless there was something that really spoke to me and caught my eye. Because it was my senior year, I was trying to be selective about my extracurricular activities. But this project spoke to me and it seemed like such a perfect way to end my Duke experience and explore this topic which I’ve been doing for the last few years. This intersection of the arts, storytelling, humanities and health, mainly women’s health and reproductive and sexual health. That project caught my eye and so I applied. Over the past year, I really enjoyed my experience with the team.

One thing I’d like to highlight at the beginning is the ability of the three professors to work together. In many ways at Duke there’s been encouragement for interdisciplinary projects and students often do a lot of interdisciplinary work, but it’s not as common that we see professors doing interdisciplinary projects and working together with each other and students in a very collaborative way. And so seeing Wesley [Hogan] from Documentary Studies, Nimmi [Ramanujam] from Biomedical Engineering and Deborah [Jenson] from Romance Studies and Health Humanities all coming together to talk about women’s reproductive health, sexual health, the Calla device, and all the social, cultural factors that go along with that was powerful to see. I really enjoyed that.

The first semester we spent a lot of time doing background research, understanding the historical, cultural foundations of reproductive health stigma and learning about some of the situations that already exist in the world or had been happening. Gaining an understanding of the history of gynecology and the reasons for needing this Calla device was really valuable. In the second semester, our team split off in to either groups of two or just one person to work on a more specific tailored project to address some component of this larger issue, which was increasing awareness about reproductive and sexual health. My project was to redesign the Invisible Organ website, which is the website for the Calla campaign, and to create a virtual documentation of an art exhibit that was there last spring.

Last spring’s exhibit was really powerful. My first exposure to the Calla Campaign was when I went to this art show, it was a great way for the project and the team to gain publicity. Even though we weren’t doing a physical show this year, I thought it would be helpful to document some of the artwork that was only on display for a temporary period. I could immortalize it and make it accessible to people for a longer period of time, and also to people that may not be from Duke or Durham and have had the opportunity to even view it in the first place. The process was rewarding, learning how to display and make curatorial choices of how to deal with artwork that was originally in a gallery and very structured. I played around with a bunch of different options. One of the more challenging parts that I hadn’t expected about the project was all of the legal and ethical concerns that would come with displaying original artwork images online. I had to individually contact all of the artists that were in the show and work with legal consultants at Duke Libraries to come up with a consent form that made sure that the artists were being protected and gave us permission to display things. I did get a good number of responses and I’m glad that we have several art pieces on display. But that whole component was something I hadn’t anticipated or thought enough about going into the project, but I realized and appreciated the importance of that piece, for the artist but also for us. That definitely taught me a lot about ethical responsibility.

I think the aim was to create it as a resource to not only educate people about reproductive and sexual health, but to serve as a place for raising awareness, and also inspire other groups and communities to undertake similar projects. I’m hopeful that it’ll be accessible for many people and valuable for them.

CR: Did you use a WordPress site? Wix? What was your software? 

SM: It was actually on a site on Cargo, which I was not familiar with before this semester, but it was relatively easy to use. There was a template already from the other pages of the site and so it was really a matter of adding in to an existing template, which worked out well. A lot of it was coded before, which I did not do. But I added in all the artwork and redesigned that page on Cargo, which is somewhat like a WordPress, maybe a little less user friendly.

CR: Let’s talk about the Hart Fellowship. Tell me a little about it, how you heard of it, and about the organization you’ll be working with through the fellowship, Imagine Art.

SM: I had heard about the Hart Fellowship last year. I knew someone that participated in it last year. It was always on my radar as something that sounded like a great opportunity to continue some service work, some research work and to spend a year dedicating your time to a service organization. I attended an info session last semester and then applied this spring.

I’m really excited to be working at Imagine Art next year. I came across Imagine Art while doing a bunch of web searching and the organization had a really interesting mission that aligned with a lot of the work that I had already been doing at Duke. I actually met with the program director at Imagine Art over my winter break in December, and then met with them again in spring break after I received notification about Hart Fellows. Imagine Art is an incredible organization. They’re primarily a nonprofit art studio but what’s unique about them is that they serve people with physical and intellectual disabilities. I think the work that they’re doing is aimed to equip their artists with a lot of professional skills, skills for independent living.

I heard that a lot of artists came into Imagine Art feeling very limited or discouraged, and afterwards started their own businesses selling their artwork and found a way to gain independence and professional skills with a community that empowered them. In so many ways, our society falls short when providing services or opportunities for people with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities. I was inspired to see the work that Imagine Art was doing and to contribute to that in some way. And so, I’m excited that as a Hart Fellows, I have the opportunity to work there and design a project with a research and service component. Those will probably overlap but I’m looking forward to potentially teaching some art classes there and assisting with the open studio time. I’d like to do some sort of collaborative art project that includes all the artists’ voices. I’m thinking of ways to make the best work that everyone can contribute to and then potentially researching opportunities for other programming at Imagine Art or developing ways to expand the reach of the program. Especially while adjusting to the uncertain situation brought about by COVID and thinking of ways we can continue to reach and serve different communities and individuals given all the new restrictions that we have.

CR: This gives artists with disabilities the opportunity to work on their skills right?

SM: Right, and I think it’s for anyone who is interested in participating in the Imagine Art community. I know they partner with some rehab programs, some people just sign-up individually and want to take classes there, others then develop their own business selling textiles or sewing or paintings. They also have community-wide art shows where artists can sell their work.

CR: That’s great, when do you officially start? I know that because of COVID all the Hart Fellows are going to start remotely so when does your official start date being?

SM: I haven’t officially decided yet, I think we’re still waiting to see how things play out for the rest of the summer. I anticipate starting in either July or August, probably August to give it a little more time. And I believe I’ll have to start remotely and then figure out if and how to transition to working in person. I think that might shape the type of project that I undertake, depending on the situation at Imagine Art, whether artists can be there in person or they have to do virtual programming.

Thinking beyond a COVID situation, if we are able to build capacity for virtual programming that’s something that the organization could continue to do if they’re interested in serving artists beyond the Austin area. It could open up more opportunities to reach large groups of people and involve them in the Imagine Art community even if they aren’t physically there.

CR: How has it been being involved in the Health Humanities Lab? How has it shaped your Duke experience overall?

SM: I think the Health Humanities Lab and all the different forms and projects that it comes in has been such an important part of my Duke experience. It’s shown me how insights from the humanities and insights from the sciences can come together and improve people’s lives and increase understanding of health conditions and how they’re treated. It’s such an important area of study and a very emerging field of study in a lot of places. And I’m really excited to see the ways it continues to grow. I think it’s rewarding as someone with a background in the arts and in the sciences to have Duke’s institutional support and a real organization and place that makes it easier for students to access these types of opportunities, to talk to faculty members who are doing research in this field. It really makes it much easier and a lot more welcoming for students with those types of interests rather than students having to create their own projects and paths for every step of the way. I think it’s great that Duke has this program and the whole lab in place. It’s been really rewarding and meaningful for me and I hope it will continue to do so for other students.

CR: Any advice you’d give Duke students who are looking for this kind of STEM and arts collaboration?

SM: Duke is a great place for interdisciplinary work – I’ll say that to start off. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be STEM and art or health humanities, it can be any two fields. I’ve seen so many interesting projects and people at Duke that are bringing together seemingly disparate fields and creating awesome work from it. Duke is an incredible place if you have lots of interests or if you’re not sure how to combine your interests, or if you’re not really sure what your interests are. I think Duke will support you and give you opportunities to find what you’re passionate about and then support that. And with regards to specific work about health humanities or STEM and art collaborations, I think there are so many avenues that you can take. I definitely recommend finding faculty mentors that are interested in that type of work, or connecting with DAE (Directors of Academic Engagement) like Dr. OJ (Odendahl-James) who has been so helpful for me, or other professors that are working at the intersection of fields you’re interested in. You can find many more opportunities and then form a connection with them. I think faculty connections are one of the most important and special aspects of Duke. That’s something you really don’t get at a larger school, to have faculty that are working so closely with students in smaller settings where you can actually get to know them or research with them or do a service project with them.

It’s very likely that you’ll feel overwhelmed by the number of opportunities and things out there. But please don’t feel like you have to do it all because there’s no way you’re going to get to do everything that Duke offers to you. Try a handful of things and if they don’t work out then you can try something else, but it’s important to stick with something if you’re enjoying it. If you’re not, there’s definitely something else that you might enjoy more. Don’t feel like you have to be locked into an activity if you’re not passionate about it.

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