Every Friday afternoon, 60 students cram into three laboratory spaces. Those labs have a distinct smell: ethanol and other chemicals, preserving four human cadavers.
More than half of the 60 students are members of the Advanced Human Dissection Team (AHDT) at the University of Nevada, Reno. The dissection program uses a peer-to-peer approach to help students learn anatomy with hands-on experiences and the opportunity to teach their peers after taking a year of the course. The team is led by teaching professors Jennifer Hollander and Jeff Baguley in the Department of Biology.
When Hollander graduated from the University with her doctorate and started teaching at the University, she said the number of students enrolled in anatomy and physiology skyrocketed.
“We proposed increasing the frequency Anatomy and Physiology I and Anatomy and Physiology II were offered, so that both would be offered every semester (some semesters more than once), so then we proposed getting even more cadavers,” Hollander said. “We decided to grow the dissection team because we need more people to dissect. That led to us developing an upper division course.”
Virtual reality becoming a popular alternative
Hollander and Baguley said that students at other universities may not have the opportunity to dissect or learn anatomy on human cadavers. Many universities have moved toward using only models, or virtual dissection tables that use virtual reality to display the human body.
“It’s very common for medical schools to use virtual tables for the first-year anatomy experience, and then they’ll allow those students to dissect on cadavers during third year, fourth year,” Baguley said.
Hollander points out that because of this, many medical students are seeing a human body for the first time in their third year into medical school. Working with a body on a screen is a very different experience than placing your hands onto someone’s heart that had been beating for years.
Baguley added that at some universities, a cadaver is used for several years to teach hundreds of students. However, the collaboration between the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine and the Department of Biology provides the AHDT with two new cadavers each semester. In total, AHDT students have a more realistic experience dissecting the human body than many other university cadaver programs.
The opportunity to dissect and work with human cadavers is becoming increasingly rare. There are regulatory measures that change and compliance efforts that must adapt. Training students to dissect the cadavers takes time. While many people have chosen to donate their bodies after passing, cadavers are expensive to maintain.
The experience added value
Despite all the work that it takes to keep the program running, Hollander and Baguley are enthusiastic about the real impacts the program has on students. Hollander said that when she and Baguley travel up to the School of Medicine, the students who were part of the AHDT are top of their anatomy class and more comfortable dissecting the cadavers compared to first-year medical students who didn't have this experience.
“I've struggled with confidence my whole life and my journey towards applying to dental school really forced me out of my comfort zone,” said Maggie Rodriguez, a former AHDT member and currently a dentist working in Reno. “Just being selected to be part of the team helped me so much. Obviously, it was a great addition to my application, but I gained so much more than that from the experience of being on that team, teaching the students and really connecting with people. It certainly boosted my confidence during interviews, and I was one of the only students in my class with experience working on human cadavers prior to dental school.”
“It's been a really big recruiting tool for us over the years,” Baguley said. He added that the students they’ve recruited to the University and College of Science include National Merit Scholars, who were particularly attracted to the University for the Advanced Human Dissection Team. Seeing the cadavers is part of the Nevada Bound tour for prospective students interested in pursuing biology, and many students who take anatomy and physiology recall their first time seeing a cadaver during their tour at the University.
Joining the team
Members of the Advanced Human Dissection Team start as students in the 200-level (or the new 300-level) course for Anatomy and Physiology. The two-semester course features lab teaching assistants (TAs), along with a dissection assistant, who serve as peer instructors for students in the lab.
If students want to join the team, they must first take the two-semester Anatomy and Physiology course, then apply to be a member dissection team. Applications to be part of the Advanced Human Dissection Team open during the spring semester. Students' grades, performance, engagement in the class, opinions from the TAs and an interview with Hollander and Baguley all inform the decision about whether the student will “make” the AHDT. Hollander and Baguley said there are usually 60 to 80 applicants, and they typically accept 32 students.
The accepted students enroll in the Advanced Human Dissection course. These students meet every Friday to prepare specimens and do cadaver dissections for whatever topic is being taught in the anatomy labs the following week, such as the nervous system, respiratory system and reproductive systems.
“We like having people that are patient and are really good at explaining and working in groups,” Hollander said. “It's a big commitment. Being able to come every Friday, and in some cases they're here for five hours in lab coats, masks and goggles, dissecting, trying to get all the structures out and labeled, because it must be done by the next Monday for when the first lab section shows up to learn.”
The first of 30 anatomy lab sections per week is taught the following Monday and dissection team members assist in lab instruction and work with students to identify the structures and explain their role in the human body.
After serving on the AHDT for one year, interested students can apply to become a paid undergraduate teaching assistant for the next year. Out of the 30 lab sections per semester, on average only 14-16 sections are taught by graduate students. Therefore, the remaining sections are taught by highly qualified undergraduates who have excelled on the dissection team.
“I love how they are so excited and respectful,” Hollander said. Hollander and Baguley impress upon the AHDT how important it is to be respectful of the cadavers. Those students, in turn, tell their students ways they can be respectful of the cadavers. One of those ways is that the instructors don’t share how the cadavers passed away. Occasionally, students will tell Hollander and Baguley about some pathology that they’ve noticed in a cadaver, which the professors note is further evidence of the students’ engagement with the course and anatomy.
“Seeing the anatomy drawn in medical illustrations is one thing, but being able to see the structures firsthand and being able to see the natural variations between people is unparalleled,” said Rhonda Mittenzwei, another former AHDT student currently working as a forensic pathologist.
“We are very, very respectful about the cadavers,” Hollander said. “We try to keep it very scientific.”
“This type of environment, a structured educational setting where students are learning together and can support each other, can really demystify the human body and what it means to "donate your body to science,"" Mittenzwei said.