Motivating Connections Between Art and Science

For Kay Young (B.S.E.’84, M.D.’90), the path to becoming a professional painter was anything but linear.

Her time at Duke was spent in Pratt Engineering and in the School of Medicine, leading her to become a plastic surgeon. It was only after ten years of private practice that Young returned to her childhood passion for art and illustration as a full-time painter. Read on to learn more about Young’s path between medicine and art as well as her decision to fund grants to support creative projects that engage scientific ideas.

Did you see yourself as an artist when you first came to Duke?

“Dawn of Gold” by Kay Young. Oil on White Gold Leafed Panel, 16″ x 16″.

When I was a kid, I remember having books with illustrations in them that fascinated me. I thought: I want to be able to draw like that one day. I liked making things with my hands. My dad had a wood shop in the garage and my mom always encouraged me to be creative. My family really supported my growth as an artist when I was growing up. Painting and was a big part of my life, and I was already an artist before I came to Duke.

That changed when I came to Duke for undergrad—I majored in engineering. I didn’t have a huge arts experience when I was at Duke. After graduating, I ended up working as an engineer for about a year and realized that wasn’t my calling. That’s when I first decided to paint full-time. I did some medical illustrating and a few commissions for people, but I barely made enough money to get by that year.

What made you decide to go to medical school?

I had a decision I had to make: did I want to go to art school or go to medical school? Happily, I was already accepted into Duke med school. It was a hard decision because I loved art so much, but I also loved the idea of helping so many people with medicine. It seemed to be that medical school was something you did in your twenties. I could study art my whole life. That’s why I chose medicine; I figured I could continue to do art no matter what, but if I went to art school, I would never have a chance to study medicine.

I went into plastic surgery because it was the most artistic field in medicine. Everyone at med school said, “Oh, that’s what you need to do because you’re an artist.” It’s super helpful in plastic surgery to have an artist’s background because the field is so visual. It was a great fit for me and I practiced in San Francisco for ten years.

Check out the Ruby’s “Art of a Scientist” Exhibit

I had to take some time off when I was pregnant with my daughter. I took some classes at the local art school and I ended up taking another year off. I decided to get my masters part-time, and ultimately, I never ended up going back to medicine. I’m practicing art full-time now.

Initially, that transition was really scary because I was so rusty and it’s hard to get back into something after all that time, but I pushed through and went to workshops and took classes. Once I had time to enroll in the graduate study program, I was so happy.

It felt like coming home.

What led you to make a gift to fund student and faculty grants in the arts?

“Far and Away” by Kay Young. Graphite on Paper, 38″ x 38”.

My husband and I were already involved in a program where you could endow a scholarship at another college. We were able to help kids so that they didn’t have to take out so many loans to go to college. We did that and thought: Well, we have to do something for Duke! What if we do a grant to support the arts? The initial idea was that we could fund a student—who may be in engineering, medicine, or science—who has an idea for an art project. I wanted to help start the conversation between art and science at Duke. It wasn’t the largest amount of money, but we felt that we could make a difference with this grant.

“I believe that art and creativity are the tools that we need to solve the problems that are facing our world.”—Kay Young

I want people to learn how to think creatively, to get them into their right brain so to speak. I think that’s where you’re going to get the best thinkers. It’s so important to allow people the opportunity to play without judgment, which is exactly why I’m excited to foster collaboration between art and science at Duke.