Khowpinitchai blends studies in art and science

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 1/8/2020

Categories: Art Biology F1RST Magazine F1RST Spring 2020 Students

Where Art Meets Science

The events that shape our lives—that send us off in one direction or another—are often difficult to discern. When so much of life seems random and ruled by chance, the forks in the road appear vague if at all discernible.

For Ben Khowpinitchai, whose life has seen more than the usual twists and turns, the most recent fork in the road was quite memorable, however. It featured a goat.

This fork, the latest of many for Ben— short for Benyapa—arrived in a medical laboratory, where researchers were exploring the effects of carbon dioxide inhalation using goats. Ben, an intense but amiable senior, was overjoyed to spend time in the lab, helping with the research. But the goat got to her. To be exact, the fate of the goat affected her.  

The research eventually demanded an autopsy of brain tissue. The goat would be euthanized and its brain harvested.

“The researchers used goats, as their breathing mechanism is similar enough to a human’s, and this was all done the right way, as humanely as possible,” Ben recalled. It was ethical and done properly, the sort of research many scientists hold as critical in our gaining a better understanding of the human body and our ability to treat and even cure illnesses or other maladies. Yet it left her with a mass of emotions.

“I felt bad for the animal,” she said. There, in a research lab in western Milwaukee County, Benyapa Khowpinitchai had reached a fork.

But before you learn where this fork took her, you should know a bit more about the journey Ben undertook just to get to that research lab.

“My ultimate goal is to work in the research field as a medical scientist.”

— Benyapa Khowpinitchai '20

Learn more about Ben in her own words

It began in Thailand, with a creative and ambitious young woman trying to figure out her future and where in the world she belonged. She loved art and had hopes of becoming a cartoonist. At 16, she moved on her own to Tokyo, to attend high school and study art. 

“I would say, once I have a goal, I tend to be very motivated to achieve it regardless of what it takes,” she explained. In Tokyo, the art classes exposed her to a broader world of art and led her to reconsider her aspirations. After a year, she returned to Thailand.

“That’s when I shifted to a completely different field,” she said. She had come to a fork in the road.

This other lifelong interest, in biology, was sparked by her study of human anatomy—the muscles, bones and organs of the human body. But pursuing a career in biology would require a tremendous leap. She took tests to receive her GED and began researching schools outside of her home country and came across Carroll. A university she had never heard of, in a town she had never heard of, in a country she was only familiar with through media. But she had financial aid, and her determination. Off she went.

That first year was not easy, Ben recalled. The culture shock many international students typically experience was compounded by the fact she hadn’t really attended high school in the traditional sense.

“It was hard, adjusting to the new environment. And not going to high school meant I was unfamiliar with even the basic things, like hanging out with friends. It was a completely different culture.” It would be a lot for anyone to deal with. Ben doubled down.

“That’s what really drove me,” she explained. “I knew I lacked a lot of experiences, so I pushed myself.”

In her biology coursework, she immediately dove into research, focusing on animal behavior and working with spiders and, later, rats. She said those experiences, along with the emotions she felt observing the research on goats, helped turn her research interests toward the cellular level. Another fork.

“So I shifted to biomedical research,” she said, “because I was able to think that my research could actually be helping someone. It could be curing a disease or it could bring about less suffering.” She even spent the summer of 2019 at a paid internship at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, working as a lab technician.

In the meantime, she hasn’t totally abandoned art. In fact, she’s embarked on a new creative project exploring the use of animals in research, borne out of her experiences in the research lab.

“My current project started there, with me expressing my emotions” about the issue, she said. “As a researcher, you have to be objective, but what do you do with your subjective emotions?” The art is her way of dealing with those feelings. “Science classes can be very intense. Art provides that balance. When I’m done studying bio and can go paint for a while and that gives me balance.”

Art professor Pacia Sallomi has seen Ben’s paintings develop. “Ben is quite humble about it, but I am very proud of her…when she returned (from Harvard), she told me that they had told her that one aspect of her application that helped her stand out was her art project—a serious exploration of her feelings and conflicts about scientific research on animals,” said Sallomi.

“I think her example demonstrates why a deep study in the liberal arts for non-majors enriches life, engages us on other levels of experience and expands our understanding of the world.”

Ben agrees. “Not only does painting serve as a way to explore my emotions— this project integrates my inspiration as an artist into my work as a medical scientist,” she noted. “As I advance in my career, canvasses are also being filled with paint, and this series progresses as I continue to explore how art and science can be complementary of one another.”

This summer, after graduation from Carroll with her major in biology and her minors in art, biochemistry and math, Ben is headed back to Harvard, and back to the research lab that employed her last year. She’ll work, as a lab technician for the summer and likely through the following year, laying the foundation for what she hopes will be the next step in her journey, admission to graduate school at Harvard.

The admitting process is rigorous and competition is fierce. But Ben figures she’ll be armed with recommendation letters from the head of the research lab at Harvard—not to mention her own, unbending drive.

It’s what has gotten her here, to a university on the other side of the world from her home country, about as far removed from her beginnings as one can imagine. And while there have been many forks on the way here and surely more to come, they don’t faze Ben. She has always had her eyes on a distant horizon. 

Benyapa Khowpinitchai in her art studio

Benyapa Khowpinitchai in the laboratory

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