The journey from Chicago, IL and Albuquerque, NM is a gruesome 2-day trek.  No offense to those who reside between points A and B, but driving through Flatlandia leaves much to be desired.  To be fair, having to lug all of your worldly possessions across the United States in two days isn't the most ideal way to explore and enjoy your surroundings.  St. Louis was very nice.  Modern day tarp technology doesn't seem to have evolved in several decades, and after an hour on the road, regardless of the number of straps and whatever tuck-job you cleverly implement, you still end up conspicuously displaying the tattered flag of your displacement from whatever vehicle you happen to be driving.

 "The farther we go today, the less we'll have to drive tomorrow." - Everyone.

Plagued by leg cramps and exhaustion, you drive as far as you possibly can the first day. But, of course, you woke up late the first day, had issues acquiring your rental vehicle, you realize you did a not-so-great job calculating how much space you would need to pack, you find a mystery pantry full of stuff you forgot about entirely, the person who contacted you on Craigslist about picking up your crap at 7am was a no show, etc., etc. So the first day you drive until your eyes burn and you start to hear voices, then you succumb to your soft, weak body's overwhelming desire to sleep and you find the closest (cheapest) hotel you can.  But, since everything you own is in the back of a pick-up truck, concealed and protected by only a few tie-downs and half a tarp, you sleep with the curtain open with a clear view of your belongings.  Outside, the constant buzzing of the neon lights and whatever mechanical racket being produced by the turbine-technology that is, somehow, powering the hotel keeps you in a half-awake daze, covered in sweat, peering through the blinds every 23 minutes like a cop on a stakeout.

On the second day, late in the afternoon, you find yourself staring out your windshield and it suddently dawns on you that you are NOW in the Southwest.  The familiar terrain sends waves of strange comfort throughout your body as the vastness of the horizon stretches out into infinity.  Bands of pink and orange in the sky beckon you into the suddenly mountainous pass that lies ahead.  You pick up speed, as it slowly begins to rain in the final hour of your journey, lightly seeping into your exposed boxes of books, as the remaining third of the tarp whips against the cab of the truck, wearing away paint and your chances of getting back your deposit.

To say that it was a comfort to be greeted by close friends and family would be a dramatic understatement.  After being away from home for 2 years, the familiarity of the people, old haunts, and weather was overwhelming.  Whenever I think about summertime in Albuquerque, the memory is always very vivid: sitting outside on a sun-drenched patio with close friends,  a warm breeze surrounding you as you drink ice-cold beer and eat mountains of nachos. Those sun-drenched, halcyon days of youth, totally free from worry.

The next several weeks were a glorious montage of enchiladas, glorious weather, and conversations both deep and ridiculous around the fire. Being reunited after long periods apart, you talk about everything and nothing with such depth and breadth that it can never be repeated with any sort of specificity, yet it's somehow still extremely meaningful. Conversations move fluidly between serious world issues and cheesy Hollywood time travel plots, with equal vehemence and eloquence.

The comfort and familiarity of the desert was a much needed and appreciated pause in the midst of everything else that was going on.  However, all the preparation and paperwork and bureaucratic crap that would still need to be taken care of in order to get to our final destination still lay ahead, and would prove to be an absolute living hell...

See you in Purgatory.


Salutations. I apologize for my prolonged hiaitus, but will try to amend this error with a series of posts to catch you all up!

I'm constantly reminded that any and every tremendously difficult hurdle that you strive to overcome only amounts to another rung on an endless ladder.  You build toward some lofty goal that resides off somewhere in the unknowable future, only to arrive at its conclusion suddenly, almost without warning.  And just as soon as it arrives, you are on the other side of it.  The all-consuming goal slowly begins to fade into memory, and a new one looms ahead of you in the distance.  Graduate school occupied so much of my time and energy for so long, and now, just like that, it's over and done.   It's strange to think of that huge, stressful, life-changing two years as "in the past"...but now it is, and the time span from then to now just keeps getting bigger each day.

And now I'm here, on the other side of ANOTHER hurdle.

Over the summer I was offered, and accepted, a job as an anaplastologist in Belgium.  This opportunity was an absolute dream come true - a serious career path in an exciting field, straight out of grad school... and relevant to my degree!.  The whole thing came out of nowhere and left me in a fair amount of shock.  I couldn't believe it was an actual reality, and to this day I still catch myself staring into space, wondering if it's all real.

The last 6 months have been a fever dream.  in 2013, I moved out of my hometown to much bigger city for graduate school, and THAT was difficult.  Packing everything I owned into a moving truck and driving across the country to start a new life, leaving friends and family and a steady job behind to become a student again - that was a very difficult situation. Very exciting and full of opportunity, but very difficult.  However, I could never have anticipated how difficult it would be to move overseas.

When you only have a couple of suitcases, your priorities shift dramatically.  Did you keep it on a shelf in your last house?  Probably not coming with you.  As a typical American Hoarder, one acquires lots and lots of things over the course of a lifetime.  You buy miscellaneous crap because you need it one time, for one project, and then you stash it away, knowing that if you ever need it again, it'll be there.  This is NOT conducive to a life that requires you to travel great distances.  Action figures, muffin pans, welding equipment, amusing wall-hangings - these are not things that make the final cut, no matter how much garage sale rummaging or haggling you might have done all those years ago just to get that rug that "really tied the room together". No, you abandon the rug.  You don't need the rug because you have no floor, no furniture to tie together.  You will need to find a NEW rug in a new house in a quaint little European town, filled with IKEA furniture (cuz damn, is it cheap!).  Outfitting a new house from scratch is a huge hassle.

But the purge is quite liberating.  The moment in Fight Club where the camera pans through the Narrator's house to see all the catalog-bought items he acquired to make his hollow life more perfect... In the end, you just throw it all out.  It just doesn't make the cut.  Leaving Chicago for Albuquerque (for a long visit with friends and family before the big move), I found myself leaving boxes of appliances out in the alley of my apartment for the neighborhood to pick through.  That rug? 5 bux to a haggling mother. Easel, bass guitar, big screen TV?  All irrelevant when you are packing your original moving truck sized load into a slightly-more-managable pick-up truck, half of which will be taken up by 2 dogs.  Yes, the cross-country journey home to my parent's garage only allowed the most essential items to be hauled back for storage, much to my mother's dismay (sorry mom).

But the downsizing of personal belongings was only one step in a gruesome, time-sensitive process.  Leaving the comfort of your home for parts unknown requires lots of loose ends to be tied up.  Ending a lease, selling your crap, closing accounts, quitting jobs, not to mention all of the paperwork necessary to move overseas.  The minutiae...God, the minutiae!  It's enough to bring a man to the very edge, to dangle his feet over the precipice of what he is willing and capable of doing, before ultimately deciding whether or not the plunge into the abyss may be a better use of his time.

In the end, I'm happy to say that I did not plunge into that abyss, but rather packed up my remaining doodads, hit the road, and headed home for a long overdue visit the people who mean the most to me.  And, of course, to gorge myself on as much delicious New Mexican food as possible.  Withdrawals are a helluvah thing.

To Be Continued.


National Museum Intern of Mystery

  LSD - AP

The end is nigh.  My final semester of graduate school is upon me.  The past two years have culminated in this moment; the closely approaching convocation.  I will be draped in silken ceremonial garb and my head will be adorned with the mortarest of boards.  I will make my final stride with my hand outstretched, grasping for my hard-won prize...the scroll!  And then I will be cast ceremoniously into the world to make cool anatomical doodads and whatnots.

Life is good.

This semester I was fortunate enough to be chosen for an internship at the National Museum of Health + Medicine Chicago.  As part of my course work for my final semester I get to work on making awesome 3D models and assets for museum exhibits!  The primary project I'm working on right now is for an upcoming exhibit about Traumatic Brain Injury.  Two other graduate students from the Biomedical Visualization program are working on the exhibit as their final research project, as well as two recent BVIS grads who are affiliated with the museum, and a handful of interns from another program.  The final exhibit will have animations, interactive modules, 3D models of brain and head anatomy, and more.  I'll be working on a short animation that will show the way in which the brain moves within the skull during trauma, leading to TBI.

Thorax Cryosection - The Visible Human Project male dataset (courtesy of


I've been working with the Visible Human Project male dataset, which was an effort made by the National Library of Science in 1986 (more info HERE).  Essentially, a human male cadaver was frozen and sliced into 1mm cryosections and each slice was photographed in high detail.  This type of data can then be imported into a segmentation program and compiled into a 3D model.  This particular data set has since been segmented into skeletal, organ, and soft tissue models in isolation, each of which can be interacted with as it's own model (a kidney or the skull, for example).  I'm working in Materialise (R) Mimics to segment out the skull, cervical vertebrae, and brain in order to create an animation.  This is a nice extension of my research project, in which I've been using the same program (Mimics) to segment skeletal data from a burial site.

In addition to the internship, I am getting ready to begin the final stages of my research project (as mentioned above) and will try to make several exhaustive posts detailing the process.  I met with my committee this past week and finalized the plan for my research - now it's just a matter of organizing the pieces and putting it all together.  I've already finished the heavy lifting, which consisted of manually segmenting the skeletal data of three 10,000 year old human subjects.  The prospects look good and I'm excited to get the last stage of this year-and-a-half long project under way.

Stay tuned for more detail than you could ever want to know about digitally excavating the dead!

Back From the Dead

red_skull With the month-long process of restoring the posterior groove in my couch to its proper depth now a fading memory, it is clear that winter break is over and that I must return to the glory of higher education.  During my bout of freedom I was able to complete ONE drawing, read ONE book, and, most importantly, played through and beat ONE video game - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.  All in all, my first hibernation in the desolate tundra that is winter in Chicago was a success, and by that I mean that I was able to avoid frostbite (narrowly).

Coming from the southwestern part of the United States, where you get 320 days of sunshine annually, it rains when the sun is out, and an eighth of an inch of snow is enough to result in the cancellation of school at every level, the depletion of the state's entire natural gas supply, and cause an automobile accident at every major and minor street intersection simultaneously...Chicago was quite a different experience.  For me "weather" has always been more of a loosely understood concept, something that happens to Bill Paxton or Tom Hanks on a large format projector in a dark room.  It wasn't until I mistakenly decided to trek into the city to visit a museum during a severe weather alert that I fully understood what living in the midwest during the winter meant.  Wandering blindly toward Lake Michigan in knee-high snow and -12 degree weather in warm-by-desert-standards boots at 4:30pm - the time at which even the sun calls it quits - is NOT something that I would recommend to most people.  That being said, I now own my first ever pair of snow boots and carry Life Alert around my neck whenever I venture out further than the front steps of my apartment.  But I digress.  Chicago is a wonderful city and all the contraptions that come to life and wander out into the street to take care of all of the wintery obstacles are pretty amazing.  Everything in this city is like a Christmas movie - big trees, ice skating rinks, frozen rats - all incredible.  And one final note: during my obligatory holiday Netflix binge, I discovered that every single Christmas movie that I loved and cherished as a dusty, sun-beaten desert child actually took place in Chicago.  Every movie I put on was peppered with Chicago flags, Blackhawks jerseys, Bears caps, and that time-honored trope of the grizzled old man who diligently shovels snow, all the while keeping his rheumy eyes locked on the nearby reckless youths who insist on causing mischief too close to his lawn - a classic.  Basically, every pitfall encountered by the robbers in Home Alone happened to me at some point during the break, and I loved it.

Turning my attention back to school, the semester has just started and is already yielding very exciting prospects.  My foray into the realm of 3D digital media is fully underway and I'm excited to learn the fundamentals of  3Ds MAX and MudBox.  This week we had to make a spaceship.  It was glorious.  In addition to digital art, this semester marks the official start of the Anaplastology program.  I'll finally be able to get my hands dirty in the lab and work with wax and plaster.  We're starting  off with a few drawings of ears, noses, and eyes, then moving into waxwork and moldmaking.  In the weeks ahead, I will get to make an ear out of silicon and color it, make an ocular (which I am EXTREMELY excited about), and, hopefully learn a bit about 3D printing.  This semester I'll also get to take a more in-depth look at the anatomy of the head and neck with Craniofacial Anatomy, and I'll be taking my *first* business class on how NOT to get screwed over as an artist.  There are surprisingly few courses with that aim geared to undergraduates in the arts, which is pretty appalling.  And last but not least is the elusive Haptics and Augmented Reality course, which I'm still not 100% sure of what it will require of me.  In our first lecture there were a lot of physics terms thrown around and we were warned that if we don't calibrate the machines correctly, we could have a Skynet type of situation on our hands, so...more on that as it  develops.

Until next time - I'll be keeping the robots at bay.

Formaldehyde Wishes and Skeleton Dreams

And just like that, the first semester of the Biomedical Visualization program has drawn to a close.  What else can be said that hasn't already been perfectly captured in every 80's era/John Hughes/coming-of-age/summer vacation film?  What a white-knuckled thrill ride it has been!  All  I need to do now  is wrap this bad boy up by winning a downhill  skiing competition on one leg.

We finished it all up with a day of presentations, where all of the current BVIS students had the opportunity to share what they have been working this semester.  Even though all of the first year students had the same assignments, it was awesome to see how each student interpreted them and achieved such different, unique results.  The progress arc was impressive too - everyone entered with a background in art, but by the end of the semester the projects looked like professional medical illustrations.  The sheer volume of work we all had to produce was an impressive feat in itself, but being able to see the amount of progress each student made is a true testament to the dedication of the students, faculty, and staff in the Biomedical Visualization program.

The work that the second year students presented was incredible!  After the first semester of the program, the range of classes opens up quite a bit.  Each student hand picks classes specific to their area of interest, which results in an enormous amount of variety in the work they show.  Aside from a  few standard classes that everyone takes (one  of  which  is a surgical illustration course which looks AWESOME), the coursework really branches  out, heading into 3D modeling,  animation, illustration, anaplastology,  haptics and virtual reality,  app and game design…the list goes on.  The work that the second years showed was really impressive and I’m eager to see what next semester looks like, especially with the haptics class!  The possibilities of what can be done with this technology are astounding, especially with regard to developing interactive teaching and learning tools for the medical field.  Developing this technology is going to revolutionize the field of medicine, and having the opportunity to be a part of it is extremely exciting and encouraging.

The first semester of grad school is over and I made it through the hazing period relatively unscathed.  The smell of formaldehyde is beginning to dissipate and the feverish dreams of dissection are slowly retreating into the deep recesses of my mind.  And in this moment of calm betwixt semesters, I look forward to further exploring the frigid, industrialized terrain that is the great city of Chicago.  Present to me your grand and wondrous secrets, Hog Butcher!

Anatomical Atlases!

Exploded_skull Despite the fact that last week I took the absolute *hardest* test I have ever taken to date (graduate level Anatomy is no joke!), the week couldn't have ended on a better note.  I knocked a big item off of my bucket list this week, fulfilling a fantasy of mine that only an anatomy geek would truly appreciate: To peruse the University of Illinois special collection of medical texts... Just thinking about it gives me chills!

In all honesty, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, which sounds like a pretty serious claim, but it's true.  Ever since I became interested in medical illustration, I've been looking at these books and reading up on the history of the craft.  Some of the atlases are 500 years old and I never even thought it would be possible to see these illustrations in person.  Vesalius, Albinus, Jan van Rymsdyk, Bidloo - these are the titans of Anatomical Illustration.  If my brain had swelled any more from excitement and subsequently burst, running out  of my ears, *these are the guys who you'd want to draw that happening.*

Gravid Uterus

Jan van Rymsdyk has been a personal favorite of mine for years.  Years ago a fellow art student lent me her copy  of Human Anatomy from the Renaissance to the Digital Age (an amazing book on the history of medical illustration), and the Jan van Rymsdyk illustrations, and the etchings based his drawings, were some of the most gorgeous works of anatomical art I had ever seen.  He worked with the anatomist William Hunter to create The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures, which explores the different stages of fetal development inside the womb.  The atlas was groundbreaking at the time of its completion as it was the first resource of its kind that available to doctors and midwives.  The history surrounding the acquisition of these bodies, on the other hand, is a little "checkered" to say the least...  (research "burking" if you're interested in learning the ghoulish details - I feel I need to specify "Burke and Hale" so that you don't end up on the Burger King website, which was the top hit on Google...)

My God Rymsdyk - you magnificent bastard!

A few years ago I serendipitously ended up at an estate sale where I found what I thought may have been a single  page from the Gravid Uterus atlas.  There  was a large collection of medical texts and individual illustrations, including an original bound copy of the Andreas Vesalius atlas (which could be yours for a few tens of thousands of Francs!) - obviously the previous owner had been an avid collector.  Anyway, I escaped with a few coins in my pocket and an etching that was dated somewhere in the ballpark of 1780.  If nothing else, it was a really good copy and I was pleased to start my collection of medical illustrations and memorabilia.  Sure enough, that single page was in the atlas I saw on friday.  I was like a kid in a candy shop, drooling at what lay before me!  Whether it's actually an original or a reprint remains to be seen, but I am extremely happy to finally find out that my hunch was correct and that the mystery artist is, in fact, Rymsdyk.

And one last noteworthy item I'd like to point out about the special collection is that we were allowed to peruse these texts at our leisure.  No thick panes of glass, no velvet ropes, no cotton gloves - all of the atlases were laid out on the tables and we were given full access to them.  I couldn't believe it!  I soaked my hands in bleach beforehand and washed them several times...but they didn't know that.  My god, what if someone had eaten some chocolate or some cheese-powder-based snack before they went in there?!  Some of the books were 2x3 feet in size  and one book in particular was a lift-the-flap book.  I kid you not - hundreds of years old, with some images having 15 flaps with anatomical structures on both sides...Absolutely incredible.

I was only able to spend a short period of time there, not even enough to thoroughly thumb through a single atlas,  but it made my day.  I will definitely be going back the first chance I get.

And lastly, on top of everything else, they let us take the photos I've included in this blog post.  Enjoy!

Govard Bidloo


Craniofacial Clinic

cropped-icon1.jpg OK! So, after a full week in the Biomedical Visualization program, I am starting to realize the sheer VOLUME of information and opportunities the program has to offer...which is far too much for a two-year program. Every semester, more and more specific classes are available. Animation, clinical anaplastology, neuroanatomy, surgical illustration, video game design and development, virtual reality and stereography, haptics and augmented reality, hamburger anatomy (delicious), 3D modeling, 4D, FIVE D! - The list goes on. More skills. More information. A man could go insane thinking about all the possibilities. What a horrible predicament to be in - having too many resources available. It's a frightening prospect.

Today I started volunteering at the Craniofacial Clinic, where a team of skilled pros work tirelessly to create cranial and maxillary prosthetic apparaus (eyes, ears, noses and teeth) for patients in an effort to aid them in living their lives as if there had been no injury at all. The skill and attention to detail that these clinicians have at their fingertips is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed. Reconstructing eyeballs and building life-like prosthetics from molds and silicone – It was incredible. They are dedicated to their craft and it shows in their work.

After speaking to someone who was working on an armature for an ear, I was excited to see tools and equipment familiar to me: soldering torches, foredom tools, investment… Equipment for silversmithing, jewelry making, and lost wax casting. He outlined what he was doing step-by-step in order to make an armature that will eventually be implanted into bone for a prosthesis to be attached. Soldering together a gold armature and fabricating clips for attachments - this is all familiar territory! Just in a different form than I’m used to (making spring-loaded baubels out of copper ).

Anyway, I will be volunteering for the duration of the semester as a trial run through the clinic for the following semester when I’ll be able to take courses in anaplastology (oh, the possibilities!). I heard a rumor that next week I’ll be a guinea pig for the other anaplastology students who need to make facial molds. IT HAS BEGUN.


Biomedical Visualization

Bone box

Hello. By way of a quick introduction, my name is Ali and I am a graduate student in the Biomedical Visualization program at UIC. I wanted to record my experiences while in the program and share the amazing wealth of information that the BVIS program has to offer. I graduated from UNM with a degree in Fine Art and I am interested in all things anatomical - medical illustration being a prime example. I love to draw, sculpt and build and human anatomy has been the focus of my work for a long time. I'm very excited to be a part of the BVIS program and to finally combine these two interests.

Last week we got to go to the Vitruvian Fine Art Studio and work with two extraordinary artists as part of our orientation. They teach a course on ecorche - sculpting the human body layer by layer, starting with the skeleton. We all started our own models on a wire armature:


A work in progress - but really cool getting to build from the ground up!

This first week has been a lot of preliminary orientation and class introductions, but everything looks like it's going to be a lot of fun. On Thursday I got to visit the Craniofacial Clinic where they work with patients to create realistic facial prosthetics. The anaplastology classes look amazing. Building teeth and eyeballs...what a dream!

We also started our anatomy coursework this week where we get to work with human cadavers. I have always loved dissection in the anatomy classes I've taken in the past, but this...this is different. Working with a real human body is an amazing learning tool for an artist. We are INCREDIBLY lucky to have this opportunity. In addition to the lab, we each got a bone box (pictured above) to help us familiarize ourselves with the structures and to have actual models to work with for our illustrations.

Anywho, this has been a somewhat disjointed rant, but we have covered a on of information this week! And there is a ton more to come... I'll keep you posted.

- Ali