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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

A closer look at campus cadavers


Investigating UC Davis gross anatomy course, cadaver origins

While most introductory anatomy classes are taught in a typical classroom setting with a textbook, only a handful of undergraduate universities offer a class that’s actually centered around the use of cadavers as a learning tool. UC Davis is one of these schools.

“My informal research has [shown] that there’s maybe four or five [undergraduate courses that are cadaver-based] in the entire United States,” said Dr. Doug Gross, a UC Davis School of Medicine professor in the departments of cell biology and human anatomy and a UC Davis Medical Center pediatrics professor. “There are many undergraduate-level anatomy courses [that are] relatively low introductory level that rarely use cadavers. In terms of a really high level, detailed, very cadaver-based-focused course, it’s very rare in an undergraduate institution.”

The undergraduate class offered here, instructed by Gross, is officially called CHA 101: Human Gross Anatomy and is made up of a lecture and lab component (CHA 101 and CHA 101L). Every week, about 500 students file into the lab room at the rear of Haring Hall in order to take what they learned in the classroom and apply their knowledge to the examination of real human cadavers.

“Gross anatomy is what we’re talking about,” Gross said. “That’s the study of the human body that you can see with the naked eye. Anatomy includes pretty much any study of the structure of the human body from microscopic to ultramicroscopic to neuroanatomy to developmental anatomy — they’re all a part of anatomy.”

Gross has been teaching anatomy for more than 40 years. When he came to UC Davis, he was expected to take hold of the anatomy class that already existed and ramp it up to become a more focused and rigorous course. Of all the undergraduate classes taught today at UC Davis, it is easily one of the most demanding. Indeed, students are expected to learn nearly a thousand new terms every week.

“I would say the majority of the undergraduate anatomy courses [besides UC Davis] take a different approach and teach from a systemic approach rather than a regional approach,” said Jenny Plasse, an academic coordinator for all of the undergraduate and School of Medicine anatomy courses. “They’re looking at an entire body system, like these are the bones in the entire body, these are the muscles in the entire body, they look at the entire vascular system and so on and so forth. We’re looking at a regional approach, which I think is more clinical-based.”

The class is not limited to any certain field, though, and is open to any major as long as the student has taken the introductory biology prerequisite. However, many of the students who do take the class need it as a prerequisite for future endeavors like physical therapy or nursing.

Plasse points out that it’s a common misconception that the class is made up of mostly pre-medical students, and that yearly surveys show that only about 18 to 19 percent of the students intend to go into medicine. In fact, this course isn’t too far off from the anatomy class medical school students have to take.

“I would say there’s only really two major differences between the undergraduate course, CHA 101, and the medical school course,” Gross said. “[For the] first year medical school course, CHA 400, one difference is in terms of the content, they’re virtually identical — the scope of coverage of anatomy, the detail, the expectation, the rigor, is very, very similar, [but] the medical school course includes embryology, which is developmental anatomy, […] and radiologic anatomy, and that’s studying imaging along with it.”

According to Plasse, the UC Davis undergraduate lab itself holds a collection of 250 specimens. The sheer amount of specimens available for UC Davis students begs the question of where they come from and how they get here.

“[Body donation] is all done through programs at most major medical schools,” Gross said. “Medical schools have programs called donated body programs, so the UC system — all the five medical schools — have their own. Then the [University of California Office of the President] has an overarching donating body organization.”

The UC Davis Body Donation Program has been around since 1968 in order for people to contribute to the educational goals of the UC Davis Medical School. According to its website, the Body Donation Program receives donors who were Davis alumni or have some other tie to the university or medical school. Every year the program receives about 150 body donations to be used as teaching materials and support research.

“[The program has] a director, an assistant director and a number of staff who go through all the legal proceedings,” Gross said. “They do all the forms, they contact the families, and then when that individual dies, they arrange for the transportation of that body, which has to be done through a mortuary service. They then test the body for certain communicable diseases, and then if it’s deemed being a suitable body for embalming and use in education, then they do the embalming and they then distribute those bodies without charging — so they’re not buying the body.”

According to Plasse, the majority of the specimens used in the undergrad lab are created by faculty members — that is, they’re meticulously dissected to become high quality specimens that should last a long time. On any given day, students in CHA 101L could be examining a specimen that has been on campus for 20 years, or one that was donated only a year or two prior.

“There are some [specimen] that are very delicate structures, so when you’ve got a class like ours when we have 10 lab sections in the winter, each with 40 students, that’s from 6 or 7 in the morning until after midnight every single day,” Dr. Gross said. “Students going through them, you can imagine things are going to get worn out, broken, at some point they are no longer useful and they need to be replaced.”

Each lab section is headed by a teaching assistant, generally a graduate student or someone who has been involved in the anatomy program at UC Davis for a number of years. Each of these TAs then has four lab aids to teach during the lab sections. The aids can be current students or graduates who have taken the class, done well and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“I think it’s a very, very unique opportunity for undergrads to actually see and learn off of actual human beings and the cadavers that were donated,” said Alexander In, a TA for the class and a UC Davis class of 2016 graduate with a degree in exercise biology. “That aspect alone makes this class very special, and it’s the reason why most of us come back to help teach and share that experience with the other students.”

During lab, students rotate between four stations, each headed by a lab aid, and examine various specimen. Whatever they are learning in lecture corresponds exactly with their lab material; they can be examining spinal chords, shoulders, skulls, hearts or any part of a cadaver that has been previously dissected by a skilled anatomist for presentation and teaching.  

“[For] me personally, as a student, you go in [the lab] on day one and are like ‘oh my goodness I’m going to see real dead human beings, something I’ve never seen before,’” In said. “We generally try to ease people into it, we don’t just show faces and hands right away, we start with general breastplates and something very neutral.”

Not only is the course rigourous, but it’s taken extremely seriously by everyone involved. In emphasizes the depth of respect and care the students are taught on day one of instruction. In fact, students don’t really learn the material the first day in lab, but are shown how to take care of and handle the specimens as well as the facility.

“The thing about this course, and the concept behind using donated specimens, is really respect for those specimens,” Plasse said. “This is something that we really try to take home with our students, [that] these are actual people who their last wish was to donate their remains so that someone else could learn and make the world a better place. We need to give them the reverence they deserve.”


Written by: Marlys Jeane — features@theaggie.org


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