By Gretchen Rubin | Photo by Jean Lachat

When Daniel Lam studied anatomy in his first year at the Pritzker School of Medicine, he found the nerves of the brachial plexus difficult to memorize and the movement of the eye tricky to understand.

“I thought at the time how helpful physical models would have been to me,” said Lam, now a fourth-year medical student. So after volunteering to assist in the course’s lab during his second year, he decided to make a three-dimensional organ as a teaching device.

That’s when he picked up his knitting needles and created an interactive human eye out of yarn, complete with the six working extraocular muscles in the eye socket that help the eyeball move.

“The first-year students, especially those who were as frustrated as I was, really liked it,” he said. “They got a sense of how each muscle moved.”

Medical student Daniel Lam knitted a study aid to learn the brachial plexus—a group of nerves in the spinal cord, neck and arms. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Lam first tried knitting in eighth grade—to impress a girl during a class trip. And he discovered he liked it. Although it wasn’t cool to be seen with knitting needles in high school, he took a class and began making and designing, scarves, hats, socks and sweaters.

“Knitting allowed me to be productive while listening to music or watching TV,” said Lam, who finds the hobby relaxing.

While in college, Lam created a website, masculiknity.com, to showcase his yarn creations and patterns as well as his love for writing. The site, which started as an imaginative blog about knitting and traveling, evolved to include thoughtful essays about his clinical experiences in medical school—from assisting in a caesarean birth for the first time to talking with a woman who had forgotten language.

After several Pritzker classmates asked Lam to teach them how to knit, he started the Pritzker Knitzers student organization. “Most of the members of the group say that knitting de-stresses them,” Lam said. ”And it’s nice to work together on something outside of medicine.”

Daniel Lam knits what will become a model of a heart and arteries. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

But medicine, and a desire to help his fellow students, continues to inspire Lam’s knitting projects. He’s a peer educator in the anatomy lab again this year, and has added two more models to his box of soft and slightly fuzzy anatomy teaching tools.

One is of the brachial plexus—the network of nerves in the body's upper extremities. In his blog, he recalls how in anatomy lab he found the brachial plexus “impossibly difficult to memorize” and how helpful a physical model would be. The other project is the intra-abdominal viscera—complete with liver, spleen, gallbladder, kidneys and the GI tract. 

“I can’t say that it’s the most aesthetically pleasing project," Lam wrote in his blog, "but it’s probably one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done (except for third grade, when I voluntarily skipped recess to help sort mail)."

—This article first appeared in UChicago's Medicine on the Midway.

Originally published on January 29, 2018.