Thriving in Science, Working as Artist? Here’s an Elegant Proof

No, we're not all brooding eccentrics.

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Dr. Jacob M. Appel and Circe.

Not all artists are brooding eccentrics. Dr. Jacob M. Appel and Dr. Paul Ranelli are living proof that artists can do well in mathematics and science, too.

Appel holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.S. in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College, an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, an M.F.A. in playwriting from Queens College, an M.P.H. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Appel has taught at Brown University and has been admitted to the bar in New York and Rhode Island.

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He also is a prolific writer. His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, published in 2012, won the Dundee International Book Prize, which honors debut authors. Since then, he has managed to stay busy in between his day-job as a psychiatrist and completing more than 10 other books.

“When people at cocktail parties find out I’m a physician, they often show me their rashes. When I tell them that I’m merely a psychiatrist, they sheepishly hide their rashes and show me their souls,” Appel said. “When they find out I’m an author, they preemptively tell me that they can’t loan me any money.”

He has also written essays, which have been featured in The New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post and Chicago Tribune, among others, and he has penned a few plays and even a collection of poetry set to come out next summer.

“All I wanted to do when I was young was to become a bioethicist,” he said. “Alas, there is no clear career path for becoming a bioethicist, so first I became a lawyer, and then a physician, and tacked on another seven graduate degrees for good measure.”

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Appel practices emergency psychiatry in NYC. He’s also sarcastic. “I’m optimistic that if I keep practicing, I may get good at it,” he quipped. When asked which came first, passion for the arts or love of science, he replied: “I fear you overestimate. First came my love for pizza. The art and science merely pay for the gourmet toppings.”

More seriously, he adds, the problem with his work as a psychiatrist is that the stories he hears, however inspiring, are off-limits as a creative prompt, owing to HIPAA safeguards against using patient information. “I hear the most amazing stories — but I cannot share them with anyone… I generally write about loss, the fleeting nature of friendships and love, and the nostalgia and regret that shapes the lives of most reflective people. Uplifting stuff.”

Paradoxically, while his first novel had its roots in the political realm, Appel doesn’t find politics to be inspiring. Indeed, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up satirizes both patriotism and its critics. “I am currently working on a novel about a cancer support group that tries to plot a political assassination,” he concluded, offering a perfect melding of art and science.

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Dr. Paul Ranelli and Jes Reyes of Avivo ArtWorks.
Dr. Paul Ranelli and Jes Reyes of Avivo ArtWorks.

Nearly 2,000 miles east, meanwhile, Dr. Paul Ranelli, another scientist, is gearing up for several art exhibitions.

Ranelli, who is a professor and associate head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Minnesota, holds a Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin, a Master’s of Pharmaceutical Administration degree from Wayne State University, and a B.S. of Pharmacy from the University of Rhode Island. Ranelli was the fall 2014 Honorary Fellow in Pain and Policy Studies Group at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. On the science side, his focus is called “social pharmacy.”

“Social pharmacy focuses on the human side and the sociological side,” Ranelli said. “How people make them, what laws are related to medicine — the economics of those — and the public health system and how it relates to pharmacy.”

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On the arts side, he’s also a photographer, and has managed to meld his love for his art form with his science practice.

“I thought about other ways to communicate the medication-taking experience that people have,” he explained, such as how a photographer might depict someone who is consuming medicine — or how he would go about asking consumers about their experience taking pills. “So I had that idea and I was thinking about how to go about doing that because I don’t have any art exhibit experience, or curator experience,” he said. Then, last year, at a meeting in St. Paul, MN, Ranelli met Jes Reyes of Minneapolis-based Avivo ArtWorks, a social-service agency that helps people with medication and substance abuse issues and mental illness.

Reyes liked Ranelli’s idea, and said it was something that Avivo would be interested in. She was curious to see if Ranelli could expand his idea to encompass more mediums than just photography. The resulting exhibit, “To Really See,” focuses on the experience of taking medicine. Some 50 pieces of art were submitted by people within the Avivo organization. “To Really See” also includes photo-voice, with the artists describing what the photographs mean. “To Really See” has already been displayed at the Minneapolis Central Library and is now at the Bio-Medical Library of the University of Minnesota until April 2018.

Ranelli has also dabbled with playwriting and production. He collaborated with Minneapolis’ Mixed Blood Theater and playwright Syl Jones on Go Ask Alice, in which actors openly tell stories of patients’ relationship to medicine.

Like Appel, Ranelli has spent his life in academia, but it wasn’t a shock to his friends when he became involved in the arts. “The people that knew me, they weren’t surprised. The deep meaning that an artist puts into their artwork is a story that you cannot get in an office.”