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Student Spotlight: Science and Art with Ayaka Sugiura (G2)

Posted by on Friday, February 23, 2018 in Student Spotlight.

Student Spotlight: Science and Art with Ayaka Sugiura (G2)

In July of last year, artwork by Ayaka Sugiura (G2) was featured on the cover of Cell Metabolism, accompanying a review titled, “Similarities and Distinctions of Cancer and Immune Metabolism in Inflammation and Tumors,” by Gabriela Andrejeva, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Ayaka’s P.I., Jeff Rathmell, Ph.D. We asked Ayaka more about her backgrounds in science and art, and how they mesh together.

Can you tell us more about your Cell Metabolism cover art came to be?

A postdoc in my lab, Dr. Gabriela Andrejeva, wrote a great review for Cell Metabolism titled “Similarities and Distinctions of Cancer and Immune Metabolism in Inflammation and Tumors,” and authors whose papers get accepted to the journal are invited to submit cover art. Knowing I liked painting, Gabriela asked me whether I would like to try. I couldn’t believe it! Cell Metabolism! Of course I wanted to try!

Gabriela provided the idea for the subject. The ballerina represents a T-cell, while the man hanging is a tumor cell.  The tightrope represents the metabolic balance between them. I have no graphic art skills, so I did the drawing and painting in layers by hand, then uploaded them to Photoshop. Then, I put on a few filters and made small changes. I didn’t think it would actually get selected, so I couldn’t believe it when it was. Interestingly, the process was similar to a paper submission – I submitted the cover art, the committee sent back revisions to be made, I made those changes, and they approved it. All in all, it was a great experience, and I can now say I have a publication on Cell Metabolism. (I can only hope I will actually have an article published in it one day).

How did you become interested in T cell metabolism?

In terms of research, I have always been interested in how aberrations in axon guidance and synaptic plasticity contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders. However, through my Internal Medicine and Pediatrics clinical rotations, I came to think that a better understanding of immunology would really boost my understanding of the pathophysiology and treatment mechanisms for many diseases and disorders that I saw in the hospital. I also thought it would be good knowledge to have in many different surgical subspecialties. Since I wasn’t completely sure what specialty I wanted to go into, I wanted to keep my doors open and study something that was applicable to a wide variety of fields – and I thought immunometabolism was just that. So now I am in Dr. Jeff Rathmell’s lab, studying immunometabolism in T cells, which can be applied to everything from cancer to autoimmune diseases.

When did you start “making art”?

Though they are not professionals or anything of that sort, my mom liked to paint and my dad liked to sketch, so I have been around some art my whole life. I first really “started” the summer I moved to Nashville. Grad school rotations had started but med school hadn’t, and I had a lot of free time on my hands (relatively speaking). So I tried copying a painting by Leonid Afremov, whose style I really like. That went fairly well, so I tried another, and another, just to learn about colors and shapes and strokes and the fundamentals in general. You can learn a lot by just copying other people – I really recommend it to anyone who wants to start.

Painting became a more significant part of my life during the six months I took a medical leave of absence from school. I suddenly had nothing to do. Only the week before, I was waking up at 5 am to prepare for the day and finishing studying around 11 pm. So, I picked up painting again. Painting was therapeutic because it was a way to occupy my whole brain. I kept painting, and I started to get commissions. Painting for other people was a completely new challenge that I welcomed. It felt so great to feel productive – something I missed from having been a student my entire life. I couldn’t have gotten through the hard times in which I pursued my new hobby without so many people encouraging me – especially Melissa Krasnove – for which I am extremely grateful. After returning to school, I (obviously) no longer had the time I used to, so I just paint and do commissions from time to time. It’s become a great hobby that I hope to keep for the rest of my life.

What types of art do you enjoy making?  What media do you use?

I prefer acrylic on canvas. I really want to learn oil, though. Let me know if anyone can teach me! I also like doing random crafts, like making jewelry, wreaths, cat trees, bismuth crystals, copper etching, etc. (pretty much anything under the sun).

Do you have any particular subjects you like to paint/draw best?

I think I’m best at scenery, but I’m up to trying anything. Commissions are great because I get asked to paint things that I wouldn’t otherwise paint, and they stretch my abilities past what I’m used to.

What led you to the Vanderbilt MSTP?

I was born in Japan but did most of my growing up in northern Virginia. I went to Cornell University (located in the frozen land of Ithaca) for my undergraduate studies and majored in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Neurobiology and Behavior. I also have a minor in Education. I did not take any time off between college and starting the MSTP at Vandy. I actually did a summer at Vandy as an undergrad in the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy (VSSA) Undergraduate Clinical Research Internship Program (which was great, by the way). That was when I fell in love with the atmosphere here that I felt focused on great mentorship. I wanted to be a surgeon and a scientist. At the time, I didn’t know how well they meshed, but Dr. Michelle Grundy (former Associate Director of the Vanderbilt MSTP) pointed me to many people who were doing just that at Vandy, and I went to talk to all of them. Long story short, Vandy was where I felt the most excitement and opportunities for attaining my career goals, and I ended up here.

Does your science background become integrated into your art?

I’m really nit picky about details, which I think serves me well in art and science. I paint from photos, and paying close attention to color, proportions, angles, etc. when transferring the image to the canvas is important to me.

Do you find that the artistic side of you becomes integrated into your science?

Yes. My diagrams, lab notebook, presentations, etc. must be aesthetically pleasing!

Do you have any advice for people who want to learn how to express themselves through art?

Just try it! Some things will come more naturally than others, and you won’t know until you try. Like I said before, you can learn a lot from copying other people at first. After you get a hang of the fundamentals, start making your own. Also, Michaels always has a coupon on their website for 50% off of one item that you can pull up on your phone, so definitely use that!


Ayaka’s cover of Cell Metabolism.

Ayaka’s replica of a painting by Leonid Afremov.


An original piece by Ayaka, based on a photo by Carter Sundermann, husband of Alex Sundermann (G3).


Johnny, commissioned by Sumeeth Jonathan (G3) for Stephanie Dudzinski (G3).


Outside Chipotle on 21st.


Ayaka donated three paintings and a handmade plate to the Silent Auction to Benefit Gilda’s Club of Middle Tennessee at the 17th Annual Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Host-Tumor Interactions Program and Program in Cancer Biology Retreat for Cancer Research in November. Her beautiful pieces were some of the highest earning auction items, as several bidding wars erupted over them!