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YSPH student finds purpose in public health and art

May 18, 2023
by Fran Fried

Mary L. Peng, MPH ’23 (Social & Behavioral Sciences), is an explorer by nature, a seeker of knowledge in as many ideas and fields as she can absorb. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia (Class of ’21), she majored in global studies with a double minor in philosophy and anthropology. Along the way, she studied literature, astronomy, anthropology, environmental science, and poetry.

“I did not have a ‘purpose,’ in its conventional sense when I decided to study” all of those subjects, she said, “but then I realized this so-called ‘purposeless-ness’ was exactly what allowed me to truly experience the joy of exploring the many ways we’ve created to understand the world.”

It was ultimately COVID-19, and the politically driven responses to it, that helped her find her purpose and sharpened her focus. The pandemic led to a pivotal moment in her life – her decision to pursue a master’s degree at the Yale School of Public Health. As she prepares to graduate, Peng continues to explore new concepts and ideas – most notably through her interest in multimedia art – but she does so, she said, with a new sense of focus and purpose.

During the pandemic, Peng realized “everything I thought about through philosophy, anthropology, and global studies was playing out in how the health crisis was unfolding, in the social upheavals that stemmed from all sorts of bigotries, -isms, and power struggles,” she said. “The intense anger that health was being weaponized to serve some political purposes, coupled with that stubborn hope that maybe, just maybe, I can do something to make a change, small or big, in people’s and society’s pursuit of health, drove me to public health.”

Traditionally, [art and science] have often been perceived as dichotomous, with art associated with subjectivity and emotion, and science aligned with objectivity and reason. However, I believe that the separation between these disciplines is an artificial construct, limiting the potential for discovery and expression.

Mary L. Peng

And it was the people she met on a visit to YSPH who made her choose the school.

“The sense of community that I gathered from my interaction with the people at YSPH was like nothing else,” she said. “To be very honest, what tracks/concentrations/research opportunities a program would offer was not really a very important part of my consideration when choosing YSPH. To me, it was always the people that mattered the most, especially in a field that required collaboration for innovation and a collective stubbornness to hope and work for long-lasting change.”

Peng is passionate about incorporating art, technology, clinical neuroscience, and social and behavioral sciences to improve individual and public health. Her primary focus is on neurological disorders. Her fascination with the mind dates back to childhood, to her parents teaching her to be attuned to the harmony of her body and mind.

“I don’t think neurological-psychological disorders are simply symptoms of the mind, but an important segue into understanding the human body as an interconnected ecosystem where physical and mental conditions should be understood in relation to each other,” she said. “I find the complexities and uncertainties surrounding our current understanding of the mind quite exciting since they afford us the ability to entertain ‘absurdities’ – to entertain ideas that are contradictory to the dominant way of understanding and knowing – and one day, maybe we can turn these wild imaginations into reality.”

When it comes to her multimedia art, Peng doesn’t think of herself as an “artist” in the traditional sense. She is more of a creator. She believes fervently in transcending traditional categorizations, and removing what she sees as the boundaries of the seemingly disparate domains of art and science, so that the two fields can feed off each other’s strengths.

“Traditionally, these realms have often been perceived as dichotomous, with art associated with subjectivity and emotion, and science aligned with objectivity and reason,” she explained. “However, I believe that the separation between these disciplines is an artificial construct, limiting the potential for discovery and expression.” Thus, she said, she frames her artwork not as an end product, but as “the work of the integration of artistic and scientific thinking, the implication of which, I hope, will become that the work is the result of a way of sense-making.”

Peng started drawing as a hobby at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and found it therapeutic. “The sense of joy that came with the ability to create was exceptionally energizing to me.” she said. Her artistic output since has come in torrents and in many forms as is evident in the diverse portfolio on her website. Digital creations, collages, prints, projects, and poetry all have places in her life.

So where does she find the time to do all of this?

“The answer might sound a little counterintuitive, but I would say finding the time to do nothing is kind of my key to doing more things,” she said. “Accepting and creating moments of stillness and silence where I deliberately do nothing gives me the energy and time to reflect, think, be unapologetically happy and appreciative of what I have, and work more efficiently when it’s time to work.”

Two of Peng’s most impactful YSPH experiences took place outside of the classroom last semester.

Peng found kindred souls in YSPH’s HAPPY (Humanities, Arts and Public Health Practice at Yale) Initiative, a cross-campus, interdisciplinary initiative that brings together the humanities, the arts, and public health practice to improve health outcomes. She approached HAPPY Director Judith Lichtman, department chair and Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology (ChronicDiseases), and as a result of that connection, she was asked to participate in HAPPY’s inaugural event: a multimedia presentation on the importance of sleep at Joe’s Pub in New York last October. Peng, clad all in white against a dark room, presented a slide show of digital art – such as spiky, distended dandelion shapes and pinwheels on sticks – based on public health statistics on sleep.

“Realizing that there was an amazing platform that shared my passion and vision felt truly incredible and humbling at the same time,” she said of participating in the HAPPY event, “and it gave me the courage to pursue an unconventional path and chart a new territory in my academic and professional pursuits no matter how daunting they might seem.”

Even more impactful, though, has been a project she started last semester, where she used art to help people with neurological and psychological symptoms and hallucinations to express and explore their experiences.

“Hallucinations are still heavily stigmatized in society,” she said. “As one respondent described it, ‘people just think we are crazy.’ I collected people’s descriptions of their experiences and turned their visions into actual visuals and images that I displayed in a digital gallery. The responses I received from the participants – who commented on how they felt seen and heard and wished they could experience something similar in their interactions with their doctors – played a huge part in convincing me to further pursue the integration of artistic design, and medical practices.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on May 17, 2023