Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

From Artist to Anatomist

By Ashley Bales

At seventeen, I knew very little. I had just arrived in California from New England, with a tunnel-vision focus on completing my final year of high school with as little engagement as possible. I extricated myself from the sprawling campus of my new school—filled with eager adolescents polishing their GPAs or their nails, depending on individual aspirations—in favor of the local community college.

I was going to art school back on the East Coast in a year and I just needed to complete a few requirements. Instead of a classroom full of fiery teenagers, I was now taking courses with first-generation Californians struggling to get vocational degrees, twenty-somethings with full-time jobs slowly completing their associates’ before competing for the limited scholarships available to attend a university. The occasional teenager I came across was a pale shadow of my peers at the high school down the road. No longer surrounded by the energy and drama of 1500 invincible adolescents, they found themselves stuffed into the chairs at San Jose Community College uncertain why they were there. I couldn’t have been farther from the three hundred ambitious teens at the boarding school I left, nestled comfortably on 65 acres outside of Boston.

I needed a lab science, something my arts high school back East had let me fulfill with a course titled “The Philosophy of Time.” The lab component consisted of taking apart a clock. The San Jose School district was less lenient, so I found myself enrolled in an anatomy class with twenty nursing students. I was enthralled by the intricacies of the human body and gleefully undertook an exploration of the brachial plexus, a bundle of nerves beneath the collar bone, on the class cadaver. As I cut away fat globules, teasing apart the long delicate nerves so that their branching pattern became clear, I considered how sculptural the process was and daydreamed about being a sculpture major. At the time I didn’t know that in a year I would prefer a return to cadavers to spending another year in art school; that I would miss the satisfaction of work and discovery.

In art school I bought reams of paper, paints, pencils, packs of screen-printed color swatches and not a single textbook. Instructors spent hours discussing the value of trusting our perspectives: embrace your love of knitting, push it to extremes, really explore the coke-bottleness of your coke bottle sculpture! We were put in a giant toy box, told to play freely and to have confidence in our intuition. I was suddenly not so confident that the sincere explorations of my 19-year-old peers were as entrancing as a nerve plexus.

Perhaps if I had never taken that anatomy class I could have been happy sculpting and trying to “find my artistic voice.” But instead I found I was more interested in exploration than introspection. At the end of my year at art school I returned to community college and signed up for Organismal Biology. It was fascinating.


Ashley Bales received her Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from NYU in 2017. She is currently an adjunct assistant professor in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute. She is working on her first novel.