Research Reflections

Cancer researcher Stefani Alexis Shoreibah ’21 works at the nexus of art, oncology, and deep empathy

By Marie DeNoia Aronsohn

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Stefani Alexis Shoreibah ’21 majored in art history and minored in biology, two seemingly unrelated subjects. Shoreibah nonetheless found a way to integrate these two interests into the exciting and expanding new field of cancer art. In February, she examined how the practice could enhance research when she co-published the article “Reimagining Cancer Research With Art” in the leading science journal Nature Reviews Cancer

Here, she explains how she discovered bioart at Barnard, where her passion for art and medicine converged.

What led you to study at Barnard?

I grew up in Lakeland, Florida, a small city between Tampa and Orlando. When it came time for me to decide where to apply to college, Barnard stood out for a number of reasons. Without a doubt, it just seemed like the best of everything: a small, superfeminist liberal arts college within this larger community that is Columbia. Barnard is right in the heart of New York City too.

Did access to Columbia University and New York City prepare you for your research career?

Yes. I am currently a premed student at Columbia’s post-baccalaureate pre-med program, which would not have been possible without my incredible mentors, associate research scientist Dhruba Deb and my principal investigator, Tal Danino, at the Synthetic Biological Systems Laboratory at Columbia’s Biomedical Engineering Department. Since I first joined their lab in 2019, I have learned so much from them. Even now, as a post-bac pre-med student at Columbia, I continue to work with them.

How would you describe “cancer art”? 

Cancer art is a branch of bioart, which is art characterized by the use of biological (living) materials, ranging from microbes to plants. Broadly, I would define cancer art as the intersection of cancer biology and art, which can range from scientists directly incorporating images of cancer cells into their artwork to patients using art as a means to express their experiences with cancer.

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Microbial Rainbow, by Tal Danino, an interdisciplinary artist and bioengineer.
Photograph courtesy of the artist.

How did you come to pursue bioart?

The intersection of art and cancer research has long been my passion. I was a visual arts student at Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland, where enrollment is via audition only, and while there, I founded a community service project dedicated to promoting Crohn’s disease research and awareness. I led my peers in organizing a fundraiser gallery event that invited the public to view and purchase the student artwork on display. All of the collected proceeds were donated to the Watson Clinic Foundation in Lakeland to support Crohn’s disease research.

At Barnard, I majored in art history with a biology minor. In my search for a research lab to join, I discovered Dr. Danino’s work at the Synthetic Biological Systems Laboratory, which centers around the intersection of art and cancer research. After further reading into his work, it was a no-brainer to try to join his lab. When I met with my now-mentor Dhruba, we found out we not only shared a passion for art and cancer research but also are both visual artists. We have worked on many bioart and science projects together since. 

How do you see this practice improving the world?

Art and medicine, though seemingly different fields, both critique the human condition. They achieve that in different ways, but an elevated understanding of the human experience, rooted in empathy and sensitivity to another person’s story, is essential in both art and medicine. Physicians are treating a person, not just a disease, and medicine is a field about taking care of people, as simple as that may sound. I firmly believe that an approach to patient care that is heavily informed by the arts and humanities — areas that challenge us to connect with ourselves and others at a human level — is the best way to serve others in this field. Bioart bridges art and medicine together and, in doing so, reinforces the importance of a humanities approach to medicine.

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Liver Cell Pattern 1, from the series “Colonies,” by Tal Danino in collaboration with artist Vik Muniz, featuring images produced from microscopic photos of bacteria, cells infected with viruses, and cancer cells. Photograph courtesy of  the artists.

What were some of the key insights from your paper published in Nature Reviews Cancer?

What readers can take away from this paper is the utility of art in scientific research as a worthy tool. Bioart is innovative, thought-provoking, and builds a bridge between two important communities in our society. Both science and art are fields that thrive on creative and out-of-the-box thinking, and it has always baffled me that they are often considered polar opposites, because they’re not! I hope that this piece inspires readers to delve further into reading about this field, as it’s only going to evolve all the more.

What’s next for you in your research work?

In these past months, I have been studying melanoma as a researcher at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine’s Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology. Having previously studied only breast and lung cancers, it has been extremely interesting to learn about melanoma. From working on this Nature Reviews Cancer paper and studying melanoma at NYU, I am aiming to delve further into studying the racial disparities that exist in melanoma treatment and care, especially because people of color are more likely to develop advanced or more aggressive cases of melanoma than Caucasians, even though melanoma is more common among Caucasians. As a woman of color in STEM, this is a situation I am particularly devoted to learning more about and combating.

   

 

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