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Off the Clock: Kitt Shaffer, MD, Ph.D., FACR

By Matt Skoufalos

Kitt Shaffer

For Kitt Shaffer, MD, Ph.D., FACR, art has always been a major part of her life. Growing up in a family that supported and enabled her creative endeavors, Shaffer was making jewelry in junior high, and netting awards for her realistic paintings and figure drawing by high school. But in medical school, when all her time was occupied by the work of completing her professional education, those creative efforts largely went by the wayside.

As she entered the medical field, however, Shaffer slowly found herself recapturing those modes of expression that she had so dearly missed, starting with pastels and moving into watercolors. As her career advanced, Shaffer was able to establish a dedicated studio space that could support the more resource-intensive pursuits of oil painting and ceramics. Today, her favorite source of inspiration is the natural environment of her southeastern Massachusetts community of Westport.

“We love it down here,” Shaffer said. “I have an endless supply of beautiful landscapes – salt marshes and ocean views, and forests and beaches. I’m captivated by the view around me wherever I am, and sometimes I incorporate some of the landscape in decorative projects, like painted furniture or ceramics, as well as drawings and paintings.”

“I do a lot of hiking with my husband,” she said. “I used to do a lot of photography, but pastels are a much more rewarding way of capturing the moment. You can have a conversation while you’re drawing, but not really when you’re snapping photos.”

Although Shaffer has sold her works, she prefers to focus on the personal, expressive nature of her art rather than using it as a commercial outlet. Some of her projects might become gifts for friends; most live on as a physical manifestation of the time she spends processing the world around her.

“It’s a renewal thing,” Shaffer said. “I think the medical field is such a stressful one, so many people need an outlet that is more calming. [It’s about] having a concrete situation where you can do something and see the result. In radiology, we do a lot of things, but we don’t see the result right away. You can go a whole day and wonder, ‘Have I done anything?’ When you make a piece of art, it’s there in front of you.”

Shaffer has contributed to the Art Days annual art exhibition at the Boston University Medical Campus, where she is a professor of radiology and anatomy and neurobiology. The exhibition ranges from fine and performing arts to metalwork, music and fiber arts. Although she enjoys participating in the event and exploring the work of her peers and colleagues, Shaffer doesn’t limit herself to merging art and medical imaging only in gallery spaces. For years, she’s incorporated the visual arts into her educational curriculum as a medical imaging educator.

“There’s a long history of art in anatomy, maybe even more than in radiology,” Shaffer said. “And then I realize, when I look back on my own education, I did a lot of drawing just taking notes; making my own little diagrams of the things I saw and the things I thought were important. I think that’s a useful way for people to learn.”

Shaffer described punctuating her classroom instruction with tasks whereby students were given medical images of CT studies that they were invited to annotate, upload and discuss in class. She said the process helped connect her students to the thinking behind making diagnoses based on their abstractions from the images before them in a way that other teaching modes didn’t communicate.

“Didactic lecturing is not a very effective way to teach,” Shaffer said. “While I’m doing these drawings on my website, I’m calling on people, making them come up with where they think the finding is, and making them come up with a diagnosis. That has a number of educational consequences. The person on the hot seat is sweating it, but everyone else is activated too; they’re all thinking about it instead of checking their emails.”

Shaffer herself gets in on the act during class; she started with dry erase markers and alcohol wipes before graduating to a digital toolkit. From there, Shaffer worked through teaching in Adobe Photoshop, supplemented by various peripheral devices, from Wacom drawing tablets to monitors and more. She described the process as “powerful and flexible, but cumbersome and fraught with peril.”

“I had to carry around a rolling bag of connectors to make sure I could do it; I couldn’t really do it standing up at a podium,” Shaffer said. “When I would travel around the country and tell them, ‘I’m not going to use PowerPoint,’ it was like I said I would be teaching naked. [Eventually] I had a student build me a website that I can use with all the drawing tools I want, and started using an iPad to teach, which was much easier. I also use that website to design freestanding educational modules.”

Shaffer admits that, even as her approach to integrating artistry and imaging education has become more streamlined, there’s always a percentage of the student body who say her class was either the best or worst learning experience they’ve had. But beyond teaching them how to connect with the visual arts in their careers, it also gave them a taste of what it feels like to face the pressures of a diagnostic career.

“People were often intimidated by the idea that they might be called on, but people in the medical field need to realize that this is their life,” Shaffer said. “They are going to have to be called on; they are going to have to have the answers, and they should practice this in a relatively low-stress setting. They have to become comfortable with uncertainty because that’s a big part of medicine.”

Today Shaffer continues to make artwork in the Westport studio that she’s establishing as an offshoot of her home there. She hopes to eventually return to traveling abroad, particularly to Italy, where she’s had some of her most productive creative experiences. As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic abates in intensity, Shaffer continues to seek out those moments of beauty that strike her in the natural world, all the better to capture them in her work.

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