Medical illustrator helps surgeons talk to patients

Dragonfly larvae, a corpse’s arm, and the encouragement of scientists and artists helped Mark Schornak combine two loves – art and science – into a career as a medical illustrator that led him to come full circle.

In January, Schornak returned to Carolina, where his artistic talent and curiosity for science first combined during his college days three decades ago. Schornak works with the faculty of the School of Medicine’s Department of Neurosurgery to create compelling images for social media, scientific journals, research projects and more that benefit patients, surgeons, residents and the neurosurgical field. He has spent the last 30 years illustrating for the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona.

Schornak’s art helps physicians plan surgeries on the brain and the body’s many nerves, endoscopic techniques, and the newest technique—ultrasound ablation of abnormal tissue to treat movement disorders and tremors. dr Nelson Oyesiku, Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery, created the opportunity for Schornak’s return.

Surgeons also use his art to explain diseases and injuries to patients and how to perform surgery. “Neurosurgery is an extremely visual field,” Schornak said. “Illustrations are a translation into a visual language as opposed to words. They allow the surgeons to say what they are saying very clearly.”

Photos are inadequate, he said, because blood or the surrounding anatomy can obscure what a surgeon focuses on. “Surgeons need to know that something really important is right behind what they are working on. I can show many complicated connections from a perspective that you don’t see in surgery,” he said.

Schornak’s first picture at his new job is an example. Created for Oyesiku, it illuminates the normally gray pituitary gland a bright red and increases its proximity to blood vessels. Such deliberately dramatic art supports the teaching of anatomy and surgical techniques and the understanding of researchers, physicians and patients.

Schornak created this composite image for Dr. Oyesiku by illuminating the normally gray pituitary gland in red to increase its proximity to blood vessels. Such deliberately dramatic art supports the teaching of anatomy and surgical techniques and the understanding of researchers, physicians and patients.

“I’m trying to tell a story about the anatomy and sometimes the surgery,” he said. “There’s probably more named anatomy in the head than in the rest of the body. Many images on the internet and in medical books are often simplified to facilitate understanding, but for neurosurgeons and their artists, accuracy is critical.”

In preparation, he can draw on his experience and knowledge of creating more than 7,000 renderings. For example, portions of the pituitary gland image may be used in dozens of other illustrations. He comes to a solution “five times faster than if I had to start and research from scratch.”

Early in his career, Schornak created illustrations using pen, pencil, ink and watercolor. The field is now almost completely digitized. He uses Photoshop and sometimes 3D computer modeling to create virtual structures. He renders his illustrations from these 3D images. If necessary, he takes a photo and then digitally adds layers with detail and color.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Schornak studied zoology at Carolina State University while taking courses in art and art history before graduating in 1980.

“I loved science. But I never thought of a future as a professional artist.”

However, an art professor, the late Dennis Zaborowski, saw something in Schornak. Zaborowski lent his student a book on visual perception that influenced the budding artist’s thinking. “He helped me see that I liked art as much as I liked zoology and wanted to explore both sides.”

Schornak’s science classes included an invertebrate zoology course. Illustrations of transparent jellyfish made him think it would be fun to create similar art. Entomology professor Elizabeth McMahan asked Schornak to measure and draw termite mouthparts. She also introduced him to Smithsonian Institution staff, who asked him to collect live dragonfly nymphs from local ponds to give Carolina preserved specimens of Australian giant hissing cockroaches. The project linked Schornak to famed Smithsonian science illustrator George Venable, who became a leader.

It was perfect timing. The field of medical illustration grew as medicine saw its potential. Schornak attended a national conference on medical illustration and returned to Carolina enthusiastically. Art professor Richard Kinaird connected him with an anatomy teacher at UNC’s medical school, who introduced him to an independent degree program. The topic?

A corpse’s arm for dissection and drawing.

During nightly sessions in the school’s anatomy room, Schornak unwrapped the arm, took a scalpel and forceps, dissected, and sketched. “The hand is an amazing piece of engineering,” he said. “The tendons divide, with some sliding gracefully under others, allowing you to subtly flex the end of your finger, for example, while flexing the base of the finger or the whole hand. Distant muscles in your forearm control everything.”

A sketch of a human hand that Schornak made as a student.

Schornak Photoshopped his hand into a sketch from his student days. “The hand is an amazing piece of engineering,” he said. “The tendons divide, with some sliding gracefully under others, allowing you to subtly flex the end of your finger, for example, while flexing the base of the finger or the whole hand. Distant muscles in your forearm control everything.”

His skills grew, as did his empathy for people and his appreciation for human anatomy. “It takes some getting used to seeing dead people,” he said. But the excitement of discovery spurred him on. “I realized that the only way to really study how the body works is to look beyond the gut reaction, then it becomes more fascinating.”

After graduating from Carolina, he improved his eyesight and learned new art techniques at the Cleveland Institute of Art and earned a master’s degree from the Medical College of Georgia in 1987.

Over the years he has received praise and awards for his art in the service of science, sometimes from people in parts of the world with limited access to anatomical material. “I get ‘You didn’t get it quite right’ a lot too, but usually from the surgeon I work with because they’ve been doing this for years and it’s often the first time I’ve seen it. I love having brilliant neurosurgeons poring over my work and teaching me new concepts.”

Schornak and his wife, medical and botanical illustrator Deborah Ravin, are excited to explore Chapel Hill’s natural areas. He is also interested in developing a medical illustration certificate program or graduate program.

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