PhD grad paints in the space between art and research

Mandy Archibald mixes colours of art, storytelling and health science for doctoral project aimed at helping parents of kids with asthma.


Mandy Archibald remembers sitting at the kitchen table as a little girl, drawing paper dolls. By age 10, she had a studio in her parents’ basement. She had her first art show at age 18. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion, and as she graduates with a PhD in nursing, the passion is still there as she works to mix the power of art with patient well-being.

Archibald graduates today from the University of Alberta with a PhD from the Faculty of Nursing, after completing a dissertation that combines art and storytelling for parents of children with asthma. The project, an e-book, symbolizes her belief that there is a place for art in research and represents who she is as a caregiver.

“It’s made me see that I am both an artist and a researcher,” says Archibald, who works casually as a pediatric nurse at the Stollery Children’s Hospital and paints in her home studio. “Health and illness are such profound experiences. Nursing provides endless creative fodder for the arts and this work is authentic to me—it reflects who I am at my core.”

Archibald, who earned her bachelor of nursing degree from the U of A in 2007, began thinking about possible ways of combining her love of art with her career after beginning PhD studies in 2011 with the support of a doctoral recruitment scholarship.

She began to fully realize the potential of integrating the arts and health research after taking an arts-based research class in the Department of Educational Psychology in the Faculty of Education.

“It really pushed my thinking about research in general and challenged the foundations of what I thought I knew about science, research and rigour. It was uncomfortable at first, but I began exploring how I could use art to work through some of these tensions, and also to work through my own experiences of health, illness and supporting patients on their journeys.”

Archibald was able to further explore her creative side by conducting work about storytelling in her supervisor Shannon Scott’s program of research, aimed at improving outcomes for child health.

As Archibald began working on her PhD dissertation, the artist in her began to see the possibilities. “I began to explore how storytelling and visual art could work together.”


My Asthma Diary, Archibald’s PhD project, is the result. Her dissertation included the first qualitative study focused explicitly on the information needs of parents dealing with childhood asthma. As a common chronic childhood disease, asthma touches a lot of families. “Parents are still feeling uncomfortable about managing it. As a nurse, it got me asking, are their needs being met? How can we as health-care providers do better?”

Featuring the story of a fictional mother and her six-year-old son, the web book walks parents through the experience of caring for a child with asthma, based on what Archibald gathered from 21 parents she interviewed. The reader-friendly publication communicates research evidence about asthma in an easy-to-understand way, and early qualitative and quantitative evaluations are showing that families using the book as a tool are liking it, she noted. “It’s improving their knowledge and confidence.”

As the health-care system moves to a more patient-centred approach, art will play a crucial role as a research method, Archibald believes. “This kind of work is a huge piece of the future.” As a tool for knowledge translation, art is a natural choice, she adds. “Art belongs to everybody. It’s a universal way to communicate and it’s a natural way of expressing yourself.”

Archibald is working steadily at building a portfolio of work that mixes the disciplines of art and research. To date, she’s written or collaborated on numerous academic articles (one of which is being used in a philosophy class on campus). Her colourful contemporary paintings, mostly of women, also figure into her research. Living in Between, a poignant work exploring the fine line between health and illness, was published in Intima: The Journal of Narrative Medicine in 2015.

Archibald’s cutting-edge work is also catching the attention of funding bodies such as the Women and Children's Health Research Institute and the Canadian Child Health Clinician Scientist Program, and she received a Centennial Award from the College & Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta.

“The support gives me a lot of confidence about the value of the work I am doing. It’s an authentic brand of work, and the health professions are increasingly seeing the merit of it.”

She is also this year’s winner of the Genevieve Gray PhD Medal in Nursing, awarded annually by the U of A to the PhD graduate with the highest academic standing.

As a post-doctoral fellow, she next plans to develop a research program on the arts and health for vulnerable populations, using methods like story-sharing circles and art-making, supported by a three-year fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a grant from the University of Adelaide in Australia.

Archibald is grateful for her time at the U of A and for the mentorship of Scott and co-supervisor Lisa Hartling, which provided the canvas for her creative journey as a researcher and artist.

“It’s amazing when things come together with your passion and it is so timely now; I feel more and more people are turning to the arts to improve health. I’m so excited for the possibilities this offers.”