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courtesy of
Suzanne Townsend


Meghan Holohan

Medical Bag

 Suzanne Townsend
Four, sometimes five days a week during her last semester at Pitt, Suzanne Townsend spent time drawing. That wasn’t a surprise. Studio arts was one of her two majors. Her model was the surprise. She spent hour after hour etching the talons and scales of birds’ feet. Yes, birds’ feet. She would sit, drawing the feet with scales and bumps and all those other whatnots.
She did it for her internship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where a study is under way that examines the evolution of birds through the changes in their feet. The internship made sense for Townsend because at Pitt she underwent her own evolution.

When she arrived on the Oakland campus, she intended to become a doctor, not because of her parents, but in spite of them. Her father is an MD, and her mother is a nurse, but they always encouraged their daughter to pursue her artistic side. She recalls being angered, even embarrassed, believing her parents didn’t think she was competent enough to be a doctor or a nurse.

She would prove to her parents that she could do it. But then she had this assignment in a freshman studies class. She had to write about her ideal career. In searching for a job that would blend her love for art and medicine, she stumbled across medical illustration, which is used in education and research. She had her career.

So rather then just getting a biology degree to prove a point to her parents, she indulged them, in a way, by picking up a studio arts major, too. And from a medical illustrator’s perspective, painting anatomy, even a bird’s leg, was good practice.

After her graduation in 2001, she enrolled in a biomedical visualization graduate program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s one of five accredited programs in the country for training as a professional medical illustrator.

She takes med school classes, including gross anatomy, along with courses in business, computer graphics, Web-site design, and animation. In addition, she has drawn sketches of surgeries as they occur, making a flipbook of sorts.

When Townsend graduates this summer, there is one city in particular where she wouldn’t mind finding work. “I definitely have an interest in coming back to Pittsburgh,” she says. For the Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, native, Pittsburgh was where she learned what she wants to do with her life.

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