Daniel Lam learned to knit in eighth grade – to impress a girl.
Though the tactic didn’t work (“I never talked to her again,” he admits), he kept at it with the knitting needles. And it’s played an important role in his life, in ways he likely didn’t imagine back then.
As a first-year student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, Lam said he struggled to understand the anatomy of the eye. “It’s something I couldn’t learn even though it’s explained in a book and I drew models, but I couldn’t get my head around it. I need something physical to imagine it,” he said. “I learned it and I passed the class.”
The next year, Lam, who is now a fourth-year student at UChicago, worked as a teaching assistant for a human anatomy class. “When we were getting to the eye part, I remembered how hard it was for me,” he said. “Rote memorization works but it’s not the easiest process, so I wanted to try and find a better way.”
So, he returned to his knitting needles. “I had seen knitting patterns for balls and spheres for Christmas ornaments and basically that’s what an eyeball is,” Lam said. After about a week of work, he had a handmade, anatomically accurate eye that included attachments to the six muscles that move it.
“I built the eyeball into the shoebox and brought it to a lab and showed the anatomy to the director to get the OK to make sure it was anatomically correct,” Lam said. “He was super enthusiastic about it. I wasn’t prepared for how enthused or excited he was about it, I thought it was just a pet project of mine and he really gave me suggestions to make it better.”
With his director’s approval, Lam brought his unusual model to class. “Even though they’ve already learned it through normal means, they’ve never seen a knitted eyeball before,” he said. “It’s a different way of learning and it makes it more memorable.”
The model also allowed students to manipulate the various eye muscles and see how each one works. “A lot of people learn best through manipulation and seeing things in real life and in 3-D,” Lam said. “I left the model in the lab, so anytime students want to go in and use it for themselves, they can pull the muscles to see how it moves and they have freedom to go in there and use it until clicks for them.”
Since then, Lam has knitted a network of nerves called the brachial plexus (estimated time: one week) and spent about a month crafting intra-abdominal muscles including the liver, spleen, gallbladder (his model includes a gallstone), kidneys, ureters, bladder and gastrointestinal tract. All are body parts Lam says he remembers struggling with himself.
Of course, the lessons aren’t the only challenge: Lam’s anatomical creations don’t have patterns he can follow. “I like the idea of making new things that haven’t been made before,” he said.
In addition to his medical creations, he’s made hats, scarves, socks, blankets, gloves, and miniature cats and ostriches. He shares his creations on his website, cleverly named “masculiknity.” Each day he tries to knit for about an hour, mostly while watching TV.
“I think it’s a good thing and an asset for me,” Lam said. “Medicine is very concrete and scientific in nature, and I think in medicine that kind of mindset is encouraged but creativity is less so, so knitting is my creative outlet.”
Lam has lofty ambitions for his next knitted anatomical structure – he’s knitting the vascular system, which is made up of arteries, veins and capillaries that carry blood throughout the body. “Everything comes from the heart and the aorta,” Lam said. He envisions knitting all of the different branches of vessels that originate from the heart with corresponding tags describing them.
“I hope to have a nice and elaborate [model] that people can test and lay on top of their own body to see where the different vessels branch off,” Lam said. He sees the model as being very useful because “you’re always tested on which blood vessel is that and what goes back to the heart.
“It’s just a good thing to have for general medical school testing,” he added.
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