BCA News: Spring 2019
Member Profile: Lisa Neal
What is your primary line of work?
Biomedical photographer in the Department of Pathology / Anatomic Pathology / Department of Autopsy and Forensic Services.
What got you inspired to be a photographer? Tell us about your career path.
I was in my final semester of journalism school when a friend talked me into taking a photography class (to be a more valuable hire in small markets (logical, right!). That was it, I fell in love with photography. After completion of BA in Journalism, I sought out photography programs and happened upon the Biomedical Communications BFA at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Having a strong interest in medical journalism, I thought the transition to biomedical photography was a logical and fascinating career path.
Upon complete of my BFA in 2002, I started my first medical photography career as an ophthalmic photographer, earning certifications as a Certified Retinal Angiographer (CRA) and Optical Coherence Tomography-Certified (OCT-C). I worked as an ophthalmic photographer for 14 years in several hospitals and research institutions. Looking to broaden my skills, I came across my current career as the photographer for Autopy and Forensic Services at the University of Michigan which also houses the Office of the Medical Examiner for two surrounding counties.
Describe your typical workday?
My typical work day includes photographing 2-4 autopsies, both external and internal, ranging anywhere from natural disease process of hospital autopsies to the sudden death and traumatic death cases, including suicide, homicide and accidental deaths cases with the Office of the Medical Examiner. Working with the Chief Medical Examiner, rotating staff physicians, a rotation of medical students, pathology residents and Forensic Fellows, in addition to Medical Legal Death Investigators and autopsy technicians.
I also work closely with Neuropathology, as I do all of the gross photography for neuro gross conference which includes three research brains each week. My day may also include research projects with the International Center for Automotive Medicine and the Michigan Legacy Tissue Program which focuses on the molecular study of metastatic cancer.
What is most rewarding about your work?
The most rewarding part of my work is knowing that, through photography, I can help families get the answers they seek about the death of their loved. My photographs are used by law enforcement, in the courtroom and for medical education.
Memories that really stand out are the ones where I can directly impact a family during their most difficult times. Gifting a family a delicate photograph of a hand, footprint or tattoo, it’s nice to be able to offer something that can assist in the grieving process.
Where do you find creative inspiration when work begins to feel routine? What motivates you to continue in your line of work?
Work never feels routine. The nature of autopsy and forensic services is dynamic and ever changing. Our cases are different everyday, each day is unexpected and pose new sets of challenges, some physical, some emotional, some technical.
Do you have any tips or special techniques for connecting with your subject?
I have to compartmentalize most of my subject matter so I can get the job done without getting emotionally invested. Very rarely do I "see" the whole picture at one time. Keeping things clean, free of background "noise" is also key. Graphic photographs are generally not used in court so I try to keep things as clean as possible. This includes foreground and background.
What technology/software/gear do you use? Are people skills as important as technical skills in your line of work?
I organize all of my images using Lightroom, Photoshop for any editing for publication and we use speciality software called MDILog (Medicolegal Death Investigators Log) as a data exchange with local law enforcement agencies, organ donation, health agencies and federal government agencies.
People skills are very important, though my patients are deceased, I'm dealing with a variety of people in the workplace (medical examiners, staff physicians, medical students, pathology residents, forensic fellows, medical death investigators, autopsy technicians, pathology assistants, law enforcement, social work, and decedents family both on the phone and occasionally in person on a scene.
Do you have special interests outside of work? Do you do photography outside of work?
My special interests outside of work are spending time with my family, sea kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, hiking, downhill skiing and equestrian sports.
I do photograph outside of work but that has become less frequent over the years. I do love documenting kayaking and hunter/jumper horse show events.
Do you have any advice for photographers interested in a career in biomedical/life sciences photography?
Be persistent, job hunting can be a difficult (almost full-time job). If possible, seek out internships or entry level positions in ophthalmic photography (often willing to train due to the specialized nature of the camera equipment) and look in places you least expect, law enforcement agencies, hospitals, universities, research centers, medical examiners, ophthalmology clinics. I had no idea that a medical photographer could be of value in a pathology department!
Numerous awards for The Ophthalmic Photographers' Society including Best of Show at the Scientific Exhibit held during the American Academy of Ophthalmology annual meeting 2017
Winner of the Robert S. Jampel M.D. PhD Endowed Prize for best abstract: "A History of Imaging in Ophthalmology"
Hear more of Lisa’s experiences by listening to her interview on NPR.
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