Working with real human body specimens as an undergraduate student is a rare opportunity at most universities across the nation. But here at UC Davis, all students have the chance to learn by doing in Cell Biology and Human Anatomy (CHA) 101, also known as the Human Gross Anatomy class offered this Winter Quarter.
“The overarching goal [of the class] is to give students a very thorough understanding of how the human body is put together and how it works,” said professor of cell biology and human anatomy Dr. Douglas Gross, who teaches CHA 101.
Introduced 40 years ago, around the time the UC Davis Medical School was established, Human Gross Anatomy has been taught by Dr. Gross for the past 17 years.
“There are probably maybe three or four other courses somewhat like it in the entire country,” Dr. Gross said. “It’s very rare to have human gross anatomy taught with human cadavers and there’s very few, if any, that teach it at the level we teach it at.”
The class is split into a four-unit lecture and a three-unit laboratory section, totalling at seven units. Both exercise biology and anthropology majors are required to take both parts in order to graduate. During Pass 2, the course is open to upperclassmen of all majors.
In a typical lab section, about 50 students are divided into four groups, each group complete with a specimen for examination. Undergraduate and graduate students who have previously taken the class act as laboratory aids, teaching the material and managing students handling the specimens.
“Gross anatomy is anatomy that you can see with the naked eye, anatomy that you can see and feel, touch, handle,” Dr. Gross said. “What you want to get out of it is an appreciation for the organization and three-dimensional structure of the human body and how that relates to how the human body both functions and dysfunctions.”
The specimens that students work with go through a lot of careful dissection and examination before coming to the laboratory facilities in Haring Hall.
Bodies are donated to the university through the UC Davis Body Donation Program. Professionals are then able to use the bodies in various ways, including using them for instruction in the School of Medicine, using them in the CHA 101 class and for research purposes. Current the university has 250 body parts.
When the class first started, Dr. Gross and his teaching staff received two full cadavers every year to prepare new specimens from. But about five years ago, a $3,500 fee was placed on each body by the donation body program, resulting in the class receiving only one body every alternate year.
“We are under a lot of pressure,” Dr. Gross said. “We have become ultra careful about the care of the specimens to try and preserve them for longer, and we try to recover more specimens from the medical school and bring them over to our collection.”
Specimens aren’t the only thing becoming harder to get. Since the course is fairly popular, seats fill up quickly, leaving some students with priority registration times unable to get in.
For some people, waiting your turn in line is worth it. Fifth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major and current CHA 101 student Sunny Singh decided to stay at UC Davis for an extra year just so that he could take the class.
“[My registration for the class is] mostly out of interest and to prepare myself for what I’ll be taking in the fall,” Singh said. “I’ve been taking physiology classes for three years, but I haven’t taken any anatomy to put all of them into perspective.”
The class is only guaranteed the space in Haring Hall through next year through Campus Facilities. Furthermore, Dr. Gross is unsure about the future of the class, as Haring Hall is supposedly under scrutiny and could possibly be demolished or permanently closed due to dangerous asbestos levels. Because the specimens are stored in Haring Hall and there are not many options for other lab locations on campus, the future of the class remains unclear.
Dr. Gross said students in about 40 different majors take the class, explaining that there are many different academic disciplines that go into understanding how the human body works, such as physiology and biochemistry.
“Our approach is from a structural standpoint — how is the body structurally put together that allows it to do the things that we know it does?” Gross said. “[We teach] at a level very similar to that which we teach our medical students.”
Singh feels that the class is challenging, but worth the effort.
“The content is great, you definitely have to spend a lot of time on it,” he said. “Once you know it though, you are just amazed.”
As a fairly interactive class, the CHA 101 lecture often includes volunteer demonstrations of technical anatomical concepts. Some students have been able to take the skills they have learned from these presentations and apply it to their own lives.
“I have a friend in the class that I work out with, and he was showing me the proper way to work out,” said third-year biochemistry major Zishan Mohsin, who wishes he could find time to take the class himself.
Dr. Gross said that students interested in healthcare-related careers such as physical therapy, pharmacy, nursing, dentistry or medicine need to understand the structure of the human body in order to be successful.
As technical as the course can be, Dr. Gross makes it absolutely clear that a large focus lies in the utmost respect for the specimens provided for the students.
“This is a very different kind of laboratory than any other kind of laboratory on campus,” Dr. Gross said. “You are not dealing with a beaker, or a chemical solution or a DNA extraction, but these are the remains of peoples’ mothers or fathers or grandparents, sisters or brothers, and they gave an amazing gift of their body to our students.”
Students can pay their respects to the donors and their families at the annual memorial service held in Freeborn Hall this spring.
“It can be emotionally challenging for [students] to be dealing with an actual dead human body, some may have never even seen a dead body before,” Dr. Gross said. “The only thing they can do that is disrespectful, besides poor behavior, is not to learn — because this person gave their body to them to learn from, so they almost have a moral obligation to really use it and learn well and value that gift.”
RITIKA IYER can be reached at email@example.com.