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In art and science, absorbing the vastness of the human experience

Helena Zhang will graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in human biology and a minor in art history. After a year serving the community as a Haas Center Community Impact Fellow, she plans to pursue a career as a doctor.

(Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

As a student of art history, Helena Zhang has learned to study a painting patiently – not to demand meaning of it but to let wonder and realization wash over her like the crash of an ocean wave.

Studying human biology has been much the same. Similar lessons – about what it means to be human, about the universe in our minds – have settled in when she’s been still, curious, attentive.

“The vastness that people carry and their stories as patients,” Zhang says, “often, I feel like I learn the most when I’m standing in front of them, awed by who they are and receptive to what they have to say.”

Zhang arrived at Stanford with a love of art and medicine tracing back to childhood. Her grandmother, who immigrated with the family to Canada from Beijing, guided her as she learned to draw, and her mother set an example through her career as a cardiologist.

As a high school student, Zhang began melding her care for other people’s health and well-being with her art. In paintings touching on poverty and child abuse, she grappled with the darker elements of life in a big city. As a volunteer at Toronto Western Hospital, she drew scenes of childhood with patients suffering from memory loss.

Zhang deepened her investment in art, science, and their intersections at Stanford. For more than three years, she studied malignant synaptic plasticity in an aggressive type of pediatric brain cancer as an undergraduate research assistant in Michelle Monje’s neuroscience lab. And she drew upon her time as a resident assistant to create paintings exploring the idea of home, belonging, and self-efficacy. During the pandemic, expanding on previous work with the High School Support Initiative at the Haas Center for Public Service, she held art workshops and created an original coloring book for youth and families in public housing and shelters.

Zhang plans to attend medical school and dreams of becoming a doctor who integrates art into her work to make patients feel safer and more comfortable.

“Stanford has given us more than we could possibly ask for,” Zhang says. “At this turning point, it’s about how are we going to take all that we’ve been given and just pour it out to the greatest capacity we can?”