Anika Ullah Continues to Push the Boundaries of Health, Science, and Activism Through Art

Arts and CultureVisual Arts

Photo courtesy of Anika Ullah.

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This article is part of a series profiling two UCSD artists and graduating seniors who were finalists for the annual “25 and Under” Art Showcase at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (MCASD).

The first thing Anika Ullah wants to make clear is that she is not just an “documentary filmmaker,” a term that she finds limiting for her diverse body of work. As someone who is always experimenting with emerging technology, Anika’s art often bridges the world of health and data with the world of activism and expression. It’s a strange niche to reside in, but it makes sense when one takes in the entirety of Anika’s background.

As a Human Biology major with a minor in ICAM (Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts), Anika cites the Visual Arts department as one of the spaces that really helped her to figure out how to incorporate “an experimental way of thinking” into her projects. Anika is a first-generation daughter—her parents arrived in America from Bangladesh, and it is their perspective that Anika carries with her as inspiration in all her work. Because it is important to her that her work remains accessible, her parents are often her “testing ground,” a first audience for everything that she designs.

Anika calls herself a “multimedia artist,” and currently, she primarily creates immersive art installations using data visualizations (which are visual representations of data) and documentary films critiquing environmental and health injustice on communities of color. To Anika, film is driven by the voices of the underrepresented, making it an accessible tool for powerful storytelling and community organization. On the other hand, data visualizations, specifically in the field of healthcare, can reveal societal problems, although its abstract and oversimplified nature can propagate inequality. Anika has recently been investigating how to pair underrepresented human narratives with health-related data visualizations to better understand health, disease, and marginalized identities.

For her senior honors thesis exhibition, titled “Dirty Data: Destigmatizing Urinary Tract Infections,” Anika unpacked decades of gendered stigma surrounding female urinary tract infections (UTIs). Along with leading a novel clinical study in which she collected urine samples and sequenced the urinary microbiomes of women on campus with UTI, Anika also individually interviewed the dozen or so women involved in the study about their experiences surrounding UTI stigma. The science and art was displayed together as an interactive installation, where a “visualization wall” displayed data on the urinary microbiomes of women with UTIs. Interactive projections on the opposite side of the room exhibited the filmed narratives of women discussing the way that UTI stigma affects them in the context of gender and race.

"Dirty Data: Destigmatizing UTI," Anika's interactive art installation featuring a "visualization wall."

“Dirty Data: Destigmatizing UTI,” Anika’s interactive art installation featuring a “visualization wall.”

When asked about what makes the data visualizations in this work art instead of science, Anika said, “You can call anything art, but I think art is a tool to critically rethink issues in society. The purpose of using the data visualizations here in contrast with the real women behind the data and their narratives of UTI stigma was to show people that data visualizations are not objective.”

Likewise, her documentary work also aims to change the “structural realities and representation” of those without power. Anika began “Impacts of the Border,” her submission to the “25 and Under” Museum of Contemporary Art showcase, about a year ago. Due to her large and differing body of work, it was surprising to hear that the 20-minute film, which was one of 25 finalists, was actually her first experience creating a documentary. The film explores how increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border has contributed to mounting problems of air pollution and respiratory illness in San Ysidro, CA.

When she started learning about the art of documentary-making, Anika was equipped with nothing but Google—”the best way to learn is just to do it,” she says—and a resolve that she wanted to carry the story embedded in San Ysidro out to the world. She felt the weight of the individuals’ narratives with every interview she conducted. So at the museum exhibit on June 3, it was especially heartwarming for her to hear that she was indeed making an impact.

A screen still from "Impacts of the Border," Anika Ullah's documentary submission.

A screen still from “Impacts of the Border,” Anika Ullah’s documentary submission.

“A nine-year-old girl came up to me and said, ‘I really like your film. I liked that it was about a problem in my neighborhood,’” Anika recounts.

While “Impacts of the Border” may be her first documentary, it is not the first time Anika has used video to drive attention towards socio-economic issues near San Diego. Intersectional Health Project San Diego (IHPSD), a nonprofit organization Anika founded in 2017, also strives to shine a light on the health, environmental, urban, and political issues at the U.S.–Mexico border, using multimedia as a medium. Last year, her team focused largely on disproportionately high rates of asthma in the Barrio Logan neighborhood, landing them features in both UCSD community and alumni as well as UC system news releases.

After she graduates this spring, Anika will be heading to Taiwan and China to spearhead a project that blends scientific research with policy and multimedia, taking elements from all of her previous work. As the recipient of a Fulbright Reseach Scholarship, Anika will be investigating non-cancerous and culturally-compatible methods of preparing the betel nut, a carcinogenic food, in collaboration with Vice President of Taiwan Chen Chien-jen and the Taiwanese Ministry of Health and Welfare. She will spend a year not only performing research through analytical chemistry and metagenomics techniques, but also filming a documentary that will be part of a public health media campaign.

In late 2019, she will begin as a MIT Media Lab graduate student, a program which uniquely takes into account the interdisciplinary nature of Anika’s interests. There, she will continue to study genetic engineering in conjunction with making community-engaged documentaries and tech-driven art. After MIT, Anika doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon, as she is looking forward to medical school and obtaining a masters’ degree in global health policy.

Anika recognizes that she is incredibly lucky to have the opportunities she does, but she firmly believes anyone can do the same if they put in the time and are proactive about reaching out to those who are knowledgeable.

“If your work is sincere and focused on imagining a better future in collaboration with those who are usually excluded from the conversation,” Anika says, “people tend to respond positively and want to see you succeed.”

Isabelle Yan is the Managing Editor of The Triton.