Postbac Alumni and Students at the Intersection of Art and Medicine

The Postbac Premed Program empowers nontraditional students to bring their unique talents to the medical field, enriching the health professions, like these four Postbacs melding artistic innovation with medical excellence.

June 22, 2023

Since 1955, the Postbac Premed Program at Columbia GS has worked to expand accessibility in the medical professions by empowering nontraditional students pivoting into health careers. Not only does the Program’s mission make the dream of becoming a medical professional more possible for countless bright aspiring doctors, psychologists, nurses, and researchers, this mission immeasurably enriches the health fields by bringing the fresh perspectives and abilities of nontraditional students to medical positions across the U.S. and the globe. 

Postbac students come from a brilliantly diverse variety of professional and personal backgrounds. Some are brought to medicine through experiences personally confronting medical emergencies, and others come to GS to pursue a health career dream they’ve had since childhood. One throughline among some in the Postbac community is a background in the arts—talents that many thread into their medical pursuits at Columbia and beyond. These four alumni and current students exemplify the mission and impact of the Program through their intersectional commitment to medicine.

Michael Natter ‘11PBPM in scrubs standing in front of the Bellevue Hospital gate

Michael Natter ‘11PBPM

Postbac Alumnus Michael Natter’s interest in healthcare comes from his experience living with Type 1 Diabetes for more than two decades. Alongside his passion for medicine, Natter is a talented artist. While earning his undergraduate degree at Skidmore College, Natter minored in studio art, and as a student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University he drew national attention for his medical illustrations

Natter completed his final days of medical training as a fellow at Bellevue Hospital in the summer of 2022 and is now a practicing endocrinologist at NYU Langone. He continues to share his drawings via his popular Instagram account, not only using the power of art and narrative to explain medical concepts and healthcare practices in refreshingly accessible ways, but also chronicling the ups and downs of working in the medical field with empathy and wit. In an Instagram post reflecting on the pressures of the health field, Natter wrote “there exists a culture in the medical training world where we feel this need to collect feathers. They’re displayed in our hats, but even when the hats are full, we still feel it’s not enough. Eventually, we amass a feathered suit of armor because we think that’ll make us feel safe. But,” Natter continued “what makes us good health professionals isn’t our accolades, it’s that we care.”

Sheng Chow ‘17PBPM with her husband and daughter, photographed on the Columbia campus

Sheng Chow ‘17PBPM

As a young girl growing up in Fresno, California, Sheng Chow dreamed of becoming a doctor, but ended up channeling this desire to help people into a career in fashion after a stint working at a department store in high school illuminated the psychological impact of clothes. “I made up my mind that I’d do something unconventional that would still benefit others, and I set out to create clothing that would make the wearer feel beautiful and empowered,” said Chow.

Chow graduated summa cum laude from the Fashion Institute of Technology before working as a designer at prestigious brands including Caroline Herrera, Janet Nelson Kumar, Pamella Roland, and Isaac Mizrahi. As her fashion career took flight, Chow and her husband decided to start a family. Chow had her daughter in 2012, but life-threatening complications she suffered following the delivery altered her trajectory. The excellent care she received from doctors during this medical emergency reawakened her desire to go into medicine, and with the support of her family, she came to the Postbac Premed Program to do just that.

"I believe that my experiences have taught me so much about life: how to stand up for what I believe is right, how to be resilient, how to be humble, and most importantly, how to discern what is most important.”

At GS, Chow was named to the dean’s list every semester and with her success, Chow was able to take advantage of the exclusive linkage program opportunities available to high-achieving Postbac Premed Program students. Chow linked with the Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) and started her first year of medical school directly after graduating from the Program. She is now a surgical resident at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, and credits her time in the fashion world as a big part of her success in the medical field: “The fashion industry is not an easy industry to work in. I believe that my experiences have taught me so much about life: how to stand up for what I believe is right, how to be resilient, how to be humble, and most importantly, how to discern what is most important.”

Gianna Paniagua ‘23PBPM working on art in a studio space

Gianna Paniagua 

Postbac student Gianna Paniagua is a two-time heart transplant recipient, having the first when she was only 14 months old and the second in 2021. Paniagua’s experiences have led to a lifelong interest in medicine, but initially, her medical team advised that a healthcare career would be too physically taxing. Paniagua pivoted to art with tremendous success, creating a technique of paper-cutting that allowed her to build sculptures that spoke to her experiences as a heart transplant patient. “My art itself is deeply personal,” shared Paniagua, who was named the VSA Emerging Artist of the Year in 2014 by the Kennedy Center, “so the process of making it is cathartic, therapeutic, and refreshing.” 

While pursuing an MFA in sculpture, Paniagua’s flourishing artistic endeavors were challenged by severe health issues. “I started to get sick. Very sick,” she recalled. “As heart transplant patients, we know that things can go wrong with our transplant at any moment, but also one day we will need yet another organ.” Paniagua had to take a break. However, as she moved towards her second heart transplant, her medical team unexpectedly expressed new optimism about the viability of her going into the healthcare professions. “They gave me the green light to become a doctor, so nothing was going to stop me this time,” she said.

“When I completed orientation week on campus and met my fellow Postbac classmates, I wrote in my journal, ‘I finally found my people.'"

Paniagua applied to the Program while still undergoing treatment and completed academic requirements in the midst of her post-op recovery. Despite the challenges of balancing health and academics, Paniagua expressed complete confidence in her choice to be part of the Postbac Premed Program. “When I completed orientation week on campus and met my fellow Postbac classmates, I wrote in my journal, ‘I finally found my people,'" she said. She also credits the Program’s deans for their understanding and support of her unique circumstances. “My disability is not the traditional disability most people think of, and other institutions have had major difficulty grasping just how much my life is controlled by my health. Every dean in the Program has gone above and beyond when it came to helping or even just sending a letter of encouragement,” she shared.

In the future, Paniagua hopes to apply to medical school and perhaps dig deeper into her interest in narrative medicine, a passion sparked while at Columbia. Paniagua’s artistic talents also continue to shine through work she shares on Instagram and on her website, much of which deals with her experiences as a patient, student, and future medical professional. While health challenges once threatened to end both her dreams as a doctor and her career as an artist, with persistence and creativity Paniagua has defiantly forged a path where she can pursue all her talents in tandem.

Aloicia (Chaieun) Lee ‘23PBPM standing in front of a gateway reading "Pixar"

Aloicia (Chaieun) Lee 

Aloicia (Chaieun) Lee was a successful rising animator, having trained at the Pixar Summer Story program and worked on an animated feature film helmed by Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, when she began experiencing mysterious pain in her shoulder and arms. Lee described it as a “piercing sensation” that persisted, harming her physical and mental health as well as her capacity to draw. Lee sought help from medical professionals who were able to diagnose the source of her pain as related to her drawing posture. “While it was my choice to fight the pain, without the doctors’ knowledge and their dedication to lead me to the right path, I wouldn’t have made it out of the prison that confined me. From this experience, I found a new spark of admiration towards doctors,” Lee shared. “The spark soon grew into a personal aspiration, and the impact they left lingered on, urging me to strive for their level of positive influence.”

Lee decided to investigate this new passion by participating in medical volunteer work in Monkey Bay, Malawi. The experience was exhausting but invigorating, and Lee also caught a glimpse of how art and medicine could meaningfully come together: while her work provided medical care, her art and ability to draw allowed Lee to build bridges of communication with patients and community members.

Returning to the U.S, Lee further committed to her medical aspirations, becoming an EMT and eventually applying to the Program. Now a Postbac student, Lee also continues to work as a freelance animator, including for the Japanese animated TV show Digimon. Said Lee of her future aspirations, “I want to dedicate my life in both art and medicine, and contribute in improving the lives of others, with the heart for people I always had.”