‘Keck in Bloom’ finds beauty in unexpected places

Medical student Tejal Gala turned her photography project into an installation.

Tejal Gala embraced the flora at Keck through her photography passion project, “Keck in Bloom,” a book and installation showcasing USC’s beauty. (Ted Meyer)

As a busy medical student, the vibrant tapestry of plant life around the Health Sciences Campus could easily fade into the background. However, for third-year medical student Tejal Gala, the flora at HSC sparked a passion project. What began as an activity to photograph every plant species at HSC turned into a bright coffee table book, and now, an art installation in front of the Hoffman Medical Research Building.

Gala started studying at the Keck School of Medicine of USC in August 2021, often finding herself intrigued by the plants on campus as she took walks or searched for places to study. When she had a moment to spare, she would pull out her phone to photograph the different flowers and leaves that adorned her campus.

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“The HSC campus is relatively small, so I was surprised by how many [plant species] there seemed to be,” Gala said. “I made it a passion project to just go around campus, searching for flowers that I hadn’t seen before.”

A plant biology class during her senior year of college piqued Gala’s interest in botany, and the next year, amid quarantine, she began to grow plants as a hobby. Photographing the plants at Keck broadened her love for plants, giving her a stress reliever to look forward to as a busy medical student.

Gala’s friend and classmate, Allison Nguyen, a third-year medical student, found “Keck in Bloom” to add a nuanced perspective to the foliage around campus.

“It’s so amazing and beautiful, especially because when she first told me that she was taking pictures of these flowers across campus, I was like, ‘I’ve never seen this at all around campus,’” Nguyen said. “It just adds such a perspective that makes me feel so grateful that we go to a campus that has such beautiful foliage, and it just really brings attention to something that I feel like most people don’t pay attention to.”

Once Gala downloaded an app that could classify the species of plants she photographed, she realized that her project would be much larger than she had expected.

“I would find new flowers in places that I had already been to before. With each season, the flowers changed,” Gala said. “At about the one-and-a-half year mark I thought, ‘I’ll just turn it into a coffee table book of all the flowers that are on this campus.’ At that point, I had found almost 80 species of flowers in 37 different flower families.”

She created the entire book by herself, grouping the foliage by family, genus and species before uploading the pictures to an online software to design and print the final project. Gala then reached out to Dr. Pamela Schaff, director of the humanities, ethics, art and law program at Keck, and Ted Meyer, Keck’s artist-in-residence, about displaying her photos in public at HSC.

“As the book came together, and as I realized how much natural beauty is on our campus that most people don’t know about and I didn’t even know until I started actively looking for all these flowers,” Gala said, “I thought, ‘Wow, this is something that I would want to share it with people on this campus,’ to let people know we’re surrounded by so much beauty every single day.”

Meyer recognized Gala’s vision and set to work finding a space to exhibit the pictures. They decided on the Hoffman Medical Research Building, which overlooks Keck’s central quad.

“As someone who’s been coming in as the artist-in-residence for six years now, it never occurred to me that there were 80 different species of plants on the campus,” Meyer said. “You look at the manicured bushes, you look at the grass that’s in the quad, but she really took the time to look around and see what was there. It’s a great metaphor of, just take the time, look around, understand your environment.”

Gala’s friend, Marcus Gay, a third-year medical student, said “Keck in Bloom” became a constructive way for Gala to relieve stress and have a project to look forward to. He sees Gala’s installation as a positive addition to the Keck community.

“It’s so cool to have something made by a Keck student that’s on display in the quad area,” Gay said. “You see so many things that are like photos of Keck students or photos of Keck alumni, but I can’t really think of anything else that was actually made by a student. It’s so cool that there’s something that feels like it’s from the community, for the community.”

While Gala’s project to catalog every plant species on HSC is still expanding every day as she identifies new flowers, she loves walking through campus with the knowledge of its different foliage.

“I can walk past and be like, ‘Oh, that’s an African lily,’ ‘Oh, that’s an azalea,’” Gala said. “It makes me feel more connected to Keck and to USC because there’s more of a sense of familiarity and an appreciation for the biodiversity on campus, which is pretty astonishing.”

Creating a coffee table book and installing an art exhibit may be daunting, but Gala takes these projects in stride, all while bettering her community.

“It’s a monumental project for someone to do while they are going to medical school,” Meyer said. “It’s important for med students and all students to take their eyes off their books every once in a while and see their surroundings, and that’s what she’s done.”

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