Histologist & Artist


In 2010, I was featured in a local magazine for having a "double life" (Westchester Magazine). I worked in the Medical Examiner’s office as a histologist and owned a children's party business where I created fairy wings, head garlands, tutus, and went to peoples' homes to face paint and host unique parties for my customers' young children.

One of the questions I was asked in the magazine interview was, "Okay, so studying body organs in a morgue by day and making gossamer fairy wings for little kids by night—that’s quite a disconnect, no?" My response was that "I needed to balance out my life. I always liked to create, always loved to face paint, and I enjoy providing smiles to young children." But there was much more to that response. What I really wanted to say to the interviewer is, "Have you ever looked at cells under the microscope or stained tissue cells from our bodies?"  Now, thirteen years later I am writing Histologist and Artist so that I can explain that a histologist is both a scientist and artist as it allows her to be in tune with the cells she is staining – resulting in better outcomes for the pathologist reading it and the patient who is anxiously awaiting a diagnosis.

The two main staining components used in histology are hematoxylin and eosin, which come together to create almost the same pallet that I used when I was face painting children.  Not only are the stained cells beautiful to look at under the microscope, but the way the cells absorb the hematoxylin and eosin to stain the nucleus and the cytoplasm and all the matter in between the cell structures is inspirational. Being a visual learner and having a love of art affects my approach whenever I teach a new employee or student, and I rely on the visual structures of the cells so that the student might be able to better relate to what they are seeing.  In Mohs, for example, the histologist cuts the slide and it is very important that the epidermis stays intact. I compare the epidermis to a running stream and if there is a “log” in the stream, this would impede the water from flowing. In comparison, if there is a cut or tear in the tissue, you will not have the whole epidermis. This is an example of the visualization used to help provide an understanding of all items being taught to the student. While researching articles about histology as an art, I came across a couple of websites that I found very interesting and thought, "Wouldn’t this be a great way to teach students?" During my research, for example, Art in the Lab fascinated me!  The "About" page stated, “to celebrate, and to promote exhibition opportunities at the intersection of science and art, we are pleased to present these works, created by friends of Art in the Lab, made with or inspired by science.”  I was not only impressed by this website, but also intrigued that there are like-minded people out there who can envision an intersection where science and art meet. 

It was also interesting to discover that even some medical schools use art as a learning tool for students. One school hypothesized that creating visual art would subjectively improve the learning process and lead to learner-based personal incorporation of art into future learning.  To test this hypothesis, it created a visual art program that was developed for use in first-year medical student courses that included histology.  The results showed that overall most students considered art to be a valuable tool to learn medicine (both before and after the course and in the experimental and control groups). Most students who participated in the arts-based intervention (75%) stated that they would use art in the future to learn concepts in medicine, while a lower percentage of students in the control group (40%) intend to use art in the future. Further long-term studies to evaluate the use of art in histology and medical education are warranted.

Additionally, over the years I have stumbled across many examples showcasing the creativity of histologists.  For example, one technician I worked with would post on her Instagram account the most amazing drawings that she created during her downtime. Another technician loves to travel and invested in a camera and takes the most amazing pictures of her travel experiences. Two other technicians had a creative hobby, one a baker and another a hairdresser. All these wonderful creative people create a form of art by day and during their downtime. So, as it turns out, not only being a face painter, party business owner, and creator of fairy wings and tutus, but also a histologist, I am not alone.


Written By: Camille McKay, MEd, BSHCA, HTL(ASCP), CLT (ASCP)
Camille would like to give credit to Robert Tagliaferro, HT (ASCP) for his help with the images.