The big idea

John Nestler has always had an interest in the arts. He started playing the piano as a young child, then began writing poetry around age 13. In high school, he added photography and, in his 20s, tried his hand at pottery.

“I’ve always had a love of the arts,” he says, “and whether I have talent or not really didn’t make a difference.”

Instead, Nestler’s sights were set on health care. His family immigrated to New Jersey following World War II after surviving concentration camps in Germany. His father, who died when Nestler was 7 years old, was a physician and family stories inspired him to follow in his footsteps.

“I truly am one of those people who always wanted to be a doctor,” he says.

John Nestler, M.D.

He never abandoned the arts, though. As a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, he would often visit the art museum, just to wander around and take in the artwork. When he moved to Richmond, he would stop by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on a near-weekly basis.

His medical career continued to advance—from a doctor of internal medicine, to an educator and federally funded researcher, to eventually the chair of VCU’s Department of Internal Medicine and the William Branch Porter Professor of Medicine in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism. His research explored the role of insulin resistance in polycystic ovary syndrome at a time when most doctors were focused on testosterone.

But as Nestler started to approach retirement, he wanted to explore new paths for exploring his interest in the arts.

VCUarts was an obvious place to start, so Nestler arranged conversations with arts faculty members. He learned about the Art of Nursing program—led by Sara Wilson McKay, chair of art education—that pairs art education students and faculty with nursing students for art engagement activities that strengthen nurses’ ability to empathize with patients. Nestler also met with Kinetic Imaging professor Semi Ryu about her research using virtual reality to help terminally ill patients manage their pain.

Art education chair Sara Wilson McKay guides nursing students during a visit to the Institute for Contemporary Arts.

“It just naturally evolved as we were talking, and I would have thoughts about how their work could relate to medical education or the treatment of patients,” he says. “[I would tell them,] here’s a connection that would be interesting to pursue. I would make introductions, put things together, and try to make it work.”

Eventually, Nestler saw an opportunity to formalize his role as a cross-disciplinary connector, while simultaneously emphasizing the university’s priorities surrounding arts and health. In 2018, he was named the inaugural VCUarts Physician-Scientist in Residence.

“Initially, I thought it was going to be a personal venture; exposing myself to more art is all I expected,” he says. “Instead, it’s become a vibrant, robust program of multiple collaborations in diverse areas.”

In his new role, he’s helping faculty in the schools of medicine and the arts find connections across campus—including grant funding—that can elevate and expand their work.

He also supports medical students interested in integrating the arts and humanities in their own lives. For instance, he developed a new elective for first-year medical students, “Medicine, Art, and the Humanities,” that teaches observation and communication skills through museum and gallery visits and improvisation workshops.

Theatre professor Aaron Anderson leads an improvisation workshop for medical students.

Nestler’s work has even extended to VCUarts undergraduates. Nestler and former VCUarts Dean Shawn Brixey submitted a joint proposal from VCUarts and the School of Medicine to the VCU Foundation’s Big Idea grant program, seeking funds for a research and innovation grant program.

“The concept [of the Big Idea grant] was to award a $10,000 incentive grant to a faculty member or academic department for an innovative, measurable research, academic or service-based project to enhance the educational program, diversity, quality of life, and university goals and activities,” says James Gregory, a member of the VCU Foundation Board of Trustees.

The grant committee received 13 applications and unanimously selected the Arts and Health Research and Innovation Grants. The grants—part of a larger VCUarts undergraduate research grant program—will award students up to $5,000 to develop a project, product or service that integrates the arts and health disciplines and contributes to the enhancement of health care delivery.

“The arts and health proposal empowers students to find common ground between artists, designers, performers and health care researchers to identify and solve problems,” Gregory says. “Dr. John Nestler’s passion for collaboration and innovation is the fuel that generates practical solutions. The fund will help to springboard creative ideas into reality.”

Lead image: A medical student interviews a patient as part of the “Medicine, Art and the Humanities” elective while a communication arts student draws the interaction.