Article In Brief
Alison Christy, MD, has always had one foot in the arts and the other in math and science. Now, the pediatric neurologist and neuroimmunologist melds those passions in embroidery projects that put a creative spin on images of neurons.
Alison Christy, MD, feels just as passionate about her creative pursuits as she does her work as a pediatric neurologist and neuroimmunologist.
Dr. Christy is busy enough serving as clinical director of pediatric neurology for Providence Health and Services Northern Oregon and director of the Providence Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center, one of the only centers in the Pacific Northwest dedicated to pediatric neuroimmunology. But recently she has taken up a new passion, embroidery, creating artistic images of neurons in colorful stitchwork that she features on her Instagram account, @dr_dura_mater. One of her pieces recently was added to the neuroscience art collection of the Jane and John Justin Neurosciences Center at Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth, TX.
Dr. Christy spoke to Neurology Today about her love for transforming doodles into threaded imagery of the brain, her passion for all things creative, and why it's just as important to do things that take and return energy. Her comments are edited for space and clarity.
WERE YOU ALWAYS INTERESTED IN HANDCRAFTING AND ART?
I've actually always had one foot in the arts and humanities and one in math and science. I grew up in Birmingham, AL, and went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts, which is a conservatory-style college preparatory school for grades seven to 12 in downtown Birmingham. I was the science and math nerd in the theater department at the arts high school. So then I switched for my last two years of high school and went to a STEM school, the Alabama School of Math and Science in Mobile. There, I was the arts and humanities person in the math and science school. For my undergraduate degree, I went to Amherst College, a liberal arts school, and majored in neuroscience. I've spent my life in between the arts and the sciences, and I don't think you have to pick one.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE PEDIATRIC NEUROLOGY?
I've always really loved “brain stuff,” but I thought I was going to pursue just a PhD and do basic science work. I landed on the MD at the last minute. I realized that it would take seven years to get a PhD and eight years to do an MD/PhD, so with just one year more I would have the MD aspect of training, allowing me to better understand medicine, make bigger leaps in clinical research, and contribute more to clinical practice. As it happened, I ended up doing a nine-year MD/PhD program. My PhD took longer because I spent two years working on a project that really didn't go anywhere and then developed my own project on mast cells in the meninges of the brain in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis. It was around that same time that I had my daughter, so that delayed things as well.
My original plan in medical school was to focus on adult neuroimmunology, but then I did my pediatrics rotation and loved it. Seeing kids fills me with joy. I came home from my rotation one day and said to my husband, “I'm happy every day doing pediatrics. It's such a shame that I'm not going to be a pediatrician.” He said, “I think you should think about what you just said.” At that point, I didn't even realize that pediatric neurology was a thing!
WHEN DID YOU PICK UP EMBROIDERY?
I actually didn't begin doing embroidery until fairly recently. My brother gave me an embroidery kit for Christmas in 2021, and I found that it gave me something to do with my hands while talking with my kids or watching TV. Before that, I had done fabric painting, which was also something I could do while other things were going on, but it's not as easy to sit down and pick up again, so embroidery seemed like an easier thing to do.
With the pandemic and being home more, and having time on my hands, I was looking for things to do with my kids, who are now 10 and 12. My daughter, who is very artistic, inspired me to pick up the fabric painting, but embroidery won out because it is so much more portable. I can do it if I'm a passenger in a car or when I'm watching “Bridgerton” with my daughter or “The Mandalorian” with my family. It's a way of being present, not looking at my phone, but also keeping my hands busy. I'll do a little bit every day, and then sometimes I can work on it longer, for example, when I'm on a long plane flight.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO FOCUS YOUR EMBROIDERY ON NEURONS?
I've always been a doodler, and the kind of curlicue imagery of neurons was the kind of thing I always did with doodling. So when I started doing more of the embroidery kits, I thought, “I bet I could do this with neurons.” I liked the idea of embroidering these classical textbook neurons but with my own style.
I think the brain is really beautiful. One of the neat things about being a neurologist is we get the most beautiful parts of the body. The brain itself is so cool-looking, as are the cells. The pictures by Santiago Ramon y Cajal [the 19th-century Spanish neuroscientist who created groundbreaking drawings of the human brain and other nerve tissues still in widespread use today] are so neat; they look like branches and trees and coral reefs. There's all this mimicking of nature. My embroidery really doesn't even look that much like a neuron, yet your brain sees it and it says “neuron” to you. I think those things are really amazing.
HOW DO YOU DESIGN YOUR NEURON EMBROIDERY IMAGES?
I found that I would often start the body of the neuron and have to undo it and start over again, so now I'll usually draw a seven-sided shape in the middle, and then stitch around it to give myself a little bit of a guideline. Then everything else I just do freehand. It's gotten better and smoother with time, like with anything.
I usually have an idea of what I want to do when I start one, and then it almost always changes. I see it taking shape, and I think of different colors and decide to do something different along the way. Recently, I've been going about it a little differently. I made a print of a Ramon y Cajal cell on a sticker.
You can stick that onto the embroidery fabric and then just stitch along it; once you've completed your stitching, you can get it wet and dissolve the sticker and then it will be just the stitching on the fabric. This is the first time I've tried it, so I don't yet know how it's going to look, but that's the neat thing about embroidery. If it looks terrible, it's just a piece of fabric, and some thread that costs like 80 cents for a lot of it. Embroidery is not an expensive hobby. It's time that was going to pass by anyway, and I had something to do with my hands. At the end of the day if it's terrible, I've lost nothing.
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH YOUR EMBROIDERY PIECES WHEN THEY'RE DONE?
That's funny—my husband would like to hear the answer to that question! He'd be like, “Yes, what do you do with them?” Honestly, right now they're mostly stacked on my desk. Putting backing on embroidery is mildly labor intensive, and it's not the fun part. It's not pretty, and that's not the part I want to be doing. I always intend to gift them, and one of these days I really am going to! In the meantime, I have the Instagram account, which allows me to see all of them in one page, like one-glance organizing.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR OTHER ARTISTIC PURSUITS?
I also love to write. I won the Alpha Omega Alpha Pharos award for a medical history essay during my second year of medical school at Northwestern, which attracted the attention of the medical humanities department. They recruited me to teach creative nonfiction writing to medical students, which was really fun. I had a writing partner, Jennifer Croft, who now translates the Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk. We wrote fiction together; every week we'd meet at a coffee shop and write fiction, and I published some short stories. Winning that essay award really confirmed to me that medical history was something I was both interested in and good at, so now one of my other side projects is the history of women in medicine and in neurology.
Working with Zack London [James W. Albers Collegiate Professor of Neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School], we've created a card game called Endowed Chairs, featuring 12 prominent women from the history of neurology, to amplify the names of these women in our history. I'm on Twitter, and I tweet a lot about the history of women in medicine, especially women in neurology. Zack does a lot of gaming in neurology education, so he contacted me about making a game that teaches about the history of neurology, with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
We hired artists to design the cards, but we developed the game. It's based on academia. You're the chair of a department of neurology, and you have a time machine, so you can build your department with these incredible women from history—Mary Putnam Jacobi, Charlotte Dravet, Isabelle Rapin, and nine others. But your opponent also has a time machine and can recruit these same women. I wrote the essays about each of the 12 women and their histories with help from Elizabeth Coon [assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic], Sasha Alick-Lindstrom [assistant professor of neurology at UT Southwestern Medical Center], and Alexis Simpkins [director of vascular neurology research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center]. We held a tournament at the AAN Annual Meeting, and you can get the game at the gamecrafter.com or endowedchairs.com. Our plan is to expand the game to other specialties; we're working on Endowed Chairs: Pediatrics right now and soon hope to start on Endowed Chairs: Surgery.
HOW DO YOU MAKE TIME FOR ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE PURSUITS?
In the Emerging Leaders program with the AAN, we talked about what gives you energy vs. what takes your energy. There are so many things in our lives that take our energy, and as neurologists, we're always giving to other people. When I'm seeing patients, writing, or doing research, I'm working to give more of myself to other people. When I'm spending time with my children, they're lovely and it's wonderful, but it's absolutely an energy-taker.
Things like creating this card game and doing these embroidery projects give so much energy back to me, I could do it all day long. Embroidery is just something I'm doing for me. I'm putting these stitches in this fabric. Every moment is decided as I'm doing it. It may turn out, it may not, and that's all OK. It's not high-risk or high stakes. It may be incredibly beautiful, or it may not be, and it doesn't matter, because it's all just for me in the moment. It's OK if it isn't perfect or exactly what I wanted when I started out. It can just be what it is.
Even if you don't think you're artistic, there are many types of art out there that don't require a lot of skill to start out and can be very rewarding. Nobody is great the first time they pick something up anyway, but you always get better in time. You have to love your inner kindergartner and say to yourself, “This is great because you are great. You made it, and I love you, so I love it.”