LSU’s Human Anatomy Lab: Where the Science of Anatomy Meets the Art of Medicine
How a centuries-old kinesiology class challenges high-achieving student to discover whether they’re ready for future in high-tech medicine
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June 12, 2020
BATON ROUGE--By the time they get to college, really smart kids are used to knowing all the answers.
Whether they rely on a photographic memory, all night study sessions or an app, they have the skills to master the material for the test. They make Scantrons sing. They ace the MCAT and get into their choice of medical, dental, physical therapy schools.
The problem is: Their success in medicine is about more than parroting back textbook answers.
It takes a different kind of intelligence-- the ability to apply knowledge to navigate through uncertainty, make tough decisions quickly and take action. That’s often a giant leap from the world of science they know into the art of medicine.
Many students don’t discover whether they thrive in that environment until they’ve invested time and money to enter a medical graduate school.
But, LSU School of Kinesiology has one of the few programs that allows students to experience that transition as undergraduates. Since 2007, the human anatomy class has taught undergraduates how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and use the scientific method to explore the unknown.
No Course Like It on Campus
Undergraduates take introductory anatomy classes before applying to enter two advanced classes—prosection and dissection.
Prosection students observe an anatomist dissecting a cadaver. In dissection class, students perform dissection themselves. “There’s no course like it on campus,” says Professor Dennis Landin, PhD, one of the lab’s founders and chair of LSU’s Institutional Review Board.
Like the general public, most undergraduates’ knowledge of cadavers comes from haunted houses and horror movies. Even so, from the minute the class starts, “They’re amazed at the complexity of human body,” Landin says, “the way it’s wonderfully and fearfully made.”
More Than Memorization
“The biggest challenge is helping the students to change their mindset,” says Assistant Professor Melissa Thompson, PhD.
The top-notch students who enter these classes have experienced academic success by mining sources to produce the right answer. But, ironically, proficiency in prosection dissection does not come from memorizing the content of anatomy atlas.
“The high-achieving students don’t like the fact we don’t always have concrete answers,” Thompson says.
That ambiguity mirrors the reality of medical practice. For example, a battery of tests may not result in a clear diagnosis. And, patients with an illness or injury rarely present with identical symptoms.
“Our bodies are going to handle the illness and recovery differently,” explains Thompson. “Understanding that uniqueness is important; but, it’s really hard.”
That lesson has not been lost on senior Maritza Martinez, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in physiology and attend medical school. “My 90-year-old patient’s body will look different than a 30-year-old’s. You to treat someone based upon a range of factors because everyone is different.”
Teaching the Art of Science
Teaching in the cadaver lab requires talent for guiding student discovery rather than delivering a lecture.
“Being approachable is important,” Thompson says. “We want students to take educated guesses and become investigators. They’re unwilling to do that, if the faculty adopts a know-it-all attitude.”
While they appear distinct in a color-coded atlas, structures in the body can be difficult to identify. Oftentimes, discovery requires following pathways to a larger organ.
"When students see the professors investigating possibilities, they’re willing to do it,” explains Thompson. “That’s valuable experience for the student in our class, but also as they go beyond.”
In fact, “We’ve had some area physicians come in with their residents from time to time to review anatomy,” says Landin. “I’m always surprised when these residents come in and say they’ve never worked with a cadaver.”
Katrina Causes a Change of Course
The LSU professors’ own quest for knowledge and professional development led the establishment of one of the state’s first undergraduate human anatomy laboratories.
“To enhance our teaching skills, we went to LSU Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) in New Orleans to learn how to dissect cadavers in 2004,” recalls Associate Professor of Professional Practice Wanda Hargroder, PhD.
Their coursework was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. Soon, LSUHSC medical, dental and nursing schools moved to temporary quarters in Baton Rouge.
The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine housed the lab and host the displaced New Orleans classes.
However, “They lost all the cadavers they prepared for that coming fall’s classes,” explains Landin. “Dr. Thompson helped the LSU dental faculty dissect cadavers in preparation for the fall semester.”
Soon afterward, Landin, Hargroder and Thompson began bringing their students over to study the LSUHSC cadavers.
“We got to know the medical school faculty and the anatomical services bureau,” says Landin. “And, they began to provide our cadavers.”
As LSUHSC prepared to return to New Orleans, Hargroder approached the director of cell biology and anatomy about maintaining the lab in Baton Rouge.
When he asked why LSU should have a cadaver lab as opposed to other state schools, “I said: ‘Because we’re the flagship,’” Hargroder recalls. “With that, we were given the OK to have a cadaver lab.”
As kinesiology became LSU’s largest major and the demand for prosection and dissection grew, the department recruited Meghan Jackson, PhD, to teach clinical anatomy in 2012.
An Amazing Advantage
While Landin admits there are good virtual anatomy programs, “Dissection is the epitome of anatomy. The absolute peak of it. Nothing compares to it.”
Even though she grew up as part of the digital generation, Martinez agrees. “The world is so technology based; but, the best learning comes from doing it yourself,” she says.
“There’s no better tangible experience than holding a brain, heart or a lung with COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] in your hands. It helps you see things differently.”
These days, it’s not only medical schools that use cadavers in teaching.
At LSUHSC, students in medical, dental, physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician’s assistant, nursing, audiology and cardiopulmonary complete two entry level courses that involves cadaveric dissection with some programs requiring advanced anatomy.
“My department teaches more than 40 courses in the health sciences center,” explains Professor Sam McClugage, PhD, LSU Heath New Orleans School of Medicine assistant dean of admissions and head of Cell Biology & Anatomy. “Most of them have cadavers as part of their teaching program.”
While attending LSU from 2006-2011, Ryan Pontiff, PhD, took advanced anatomy and worked as a teacher’s assistant in the anatomy lab. After graduation, he entered physical therapy school at Texas Women’s University.
“There were eight LSU grads in that class, which was unusual,” says Pontiff, who is now the center coordinator of clinical education at Concentra Houston. “Those who had cadaver lab had an easier time in the difficult gross anatomy class than others.”
In fact, an exit survey of new kinesiology graduates admitted to professional medical programs reveals, “Every person in here who has been accepted [into medical programs] has taken the cadaver lab,” says Hargroder.
A Generous Gift
Since the class started in 2007, it has been held at the LSU Vet School.
Thanks to a $1 million gift from the Rathbone family, an expanded state-of-the-art lab will be a part of the renovated Huey P. Long Field House and accommodate more students.
“It’s a huge advantage for any kid going into the medical field,” Martinez says. “Having this hand-on experience with cadaver dissection, she continues. “I’ll be more confident when I start a medical graduate program.
“And, what is college really for?" she asks. "To prepare for us for our next step in life.”