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Art brings creativity into focus

J. Ryne Danielson | MUSC News Center | December 22, 2014

Rali Peneva

"Predator," the winning photograph on the front of Humanitas 2014, was taken by College of Medicine student Rali Peneva at Cypress Gardens while she was dangling from a bridge. 

Dangling from the railing of a footbridge—which spans the black water swamp of Cypress Gardens near Moncks Corner, South Carolina—Ralitza Peneva spies something dangerous. Holding on with one arm, she struggles to get her camera in focus.

“I didn’t have any fancy lenses,” she said. “So, I had to get down as close as I could.”

Titled “Predator,” Peneva’s photograph—of a baby alligator—won the 2014 Humanitas Award for Creative Excellence in Photography and adorns the cover of this year’s Humanitas literary magazine, published by the Medical University of South Carolina.


Susan Linn's "On the Road to Denali" is one of the photographs featured in Humanitas 2014.


Like many, Peneva came to medical school with a background in biology. Her initial goal, however, was not to be a doctor, but an ornithologist.  Her interest in photography, she said, was inspired by her high school biology teacher, William “Bill” Alexander, Ph.D.  “Dr. Bill was a wildlife photographer,” Peneva said. “He was a big influence on me.”

In college, Peneva began to rethink her career goals. “I realized I didn’t have this inward drive, like many of my professors did, to wake up at 4 a.m. and go study bats.”

While studying abroad in Costa Rica, Peneva was stung by a neurotoxic ant. “It landed me in a tiny, rural hospital,” she said. It was then she started thinking seriously about medical school. “I just realized that I’d rather stay in there, hooked up to my IV, and hang out with those patients and those doctors, than go back out and look at the bats.”

In her senior year at Duke University, Peneva took a class on photography in medicine with John Moses, M.D. His class, she said, was transformative. “It merged my love of photography with my budding interest in going to medical school.”

Peneva realized that medicine could both inspire her photography and photography could make her better at medicine. “Photography keeps you grounded,” she said. “For example, Dr. Moses was a practicing pediatrician who conducted a documentary study on teenage pregnancy. He could have sat in a classroom and taught us about pregnancy and what happens biologically. He could have just told us that teen pregnancy is hard. Instead, he showed us a photograph of this pregnant 16-year-old girl. And you could just see what she was going through from her facial expressions.”

“Photographs are stories,” Peneva said. “You can learn a lot more about a patient or a population by seeing them than by reading about them in a text book.”

Jason Macik's photograph, "Survivor of Dragon's Backbone" 

Peneva believes the humanities are “indispensable” to the field of medicine. “If you want to be someone that works with humans,” she said, “I think that not taking time to explore your human side is a disservice to your patients. When a patient comes in, they want to know, not that you know all this science and that you've read all these books, but that you care about them as a person."

Peneva said she's glad Humanitas exists. “It's easy to forget sometimes that everyone in your class is so much more than their stack of books.”

Much more than his stack of books, Cameron Jones came to medical school by a non-traditional route: via a degree in English from Clemson University. Jones is the winner of the 2014 Humanitas Award for Creative Excellence in Written Word.

Cameron Jones, winner of excellence in written word 

The humanities are important to medicine, Jones believes, because they teach important skills that otherwise get overlooked in the hard sciences. “If you’re curious and you want to learn, you can pick up the physiology and the anatomy and the biochemistry,” he said. “What’s harder to teach is communication and critical thinking.”

Jones admitted that it would have saved him some time had he realized he wanted to go to medical school earlier. However, he still would have pursued his undergraduate degree in English, he said, because many of the same skills he developed through reading and interpreting literature are still useful. “Reading a patient’s history is all about filtering what information is important. A patient history is just a story they’re telling us, about how they ended up in our office, how they got to this point. It’s certainly different from Hemingway—you’re reading it with a different goal in mind, obviously, but the same skills apply. Interpretation is critical.  Small details can totally change your understanding of the story.”

 Rali Peneva, winner of excellence in photography.

Jones seems to be adapting well to medical school and believes the same drive that inspired his love of literature still holds true. “My classes are definitely different,” he said. “But I think people make more out of that difference than there really is. Curiosity drives both the humanities and the sciences. People read and write to explore the world and learn about themselves.” Ultimately, he said, that's what medical school is about too.

When Jones saw a call for submissions from MUSC’s literary magazine, he knew he had to submit. “I'd be letting myself and my English background down if I didn't do it,” he said.

Jones’ winning piece, titled “To Whom It May Concern,” is written as a series of letters from various citizens to their government, which is building an underground bunker to ensure the survival of humanity in the face of an impending asteroid impact. Each letter writer presents an absurd reason why he or she should be chosen to survive. “You have someone suggesting they have a supply of tears that can be used as contact solution,” Jones said. “And you have someone else suggesting that they have a super power, but essentially they're just really annoying.”

Blakeney Adkins of the College of Health Professions won excellence in visual art with his untitled ink wash on watercolor paper. 

As those who have served as influences in his writing, Jones cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Karen Russell and Michael Chabon. Jones' favorite authors tend to mix humor and sadness—the absurd and the mundane—in fantastical ways, a genre known as magical realism.

“I still read voraciously,” he said, even though a busy class schedule sometimes makes that difficult. “It’s just a priority for me.”

Both Peneva and Jones cite their professor, Steven Kubalak, Ph.D., from the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology, as the person who encouraged them to submit to Humanitas. Kubalak is a faculty advisor for the publication.

“Humanitas affords a wonderful opportunity for those who submit pieces to express themselves in very personal ways,” Kubalak said. “And it informs those who browse the literary journal about the wide variety of talent within the MUSC community.”

Want to Submit?

Humanitas is currently accepting submissions for 2015 in each of the following categories:

·      Written Word
·      Photography
·      Visual Art
·      Music

The entire MUSC community is welcome to submit: faculty, staff, students—anyone with an MUSC ID.  The deadline for submissions is Jan. 30; submissions can be made online at:

Submissions should include the title of the work in the description box. For all digital format submissions, the higher the resolution the better. Scanning is preferred, but you may also photograph your work.

To listen to this year’s musical submissions, visit:




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