The New Anatomy Lab

Anatomy is a subject that every school teaches differently. Some med schools use intact cadavers while other use already prosected cadaver parts (or even plastic models!). Some med schools teach it in 2 semesters, while others only 1. Some schools have an entire class crowd around an instructor teaching on a cadaver, while other schools have small groups of students having much more personal relationships with cadavers. Learning anatomy, and especially on real human beings, is a privilege, and not many people in the world have as great of an opportunity as us. Going onto my fourth semester in the lab (first as a student, then later as a TA, and now as a head TA), I have seen changes semester after semester to try to improve the program, but never have I seen as many changes as this semester.


In the past, there had always been about 6-7 people working on a cadaver at any given time. Because of the limited space around tables, it was difficult having more than 3 people dissecting on a body at a time, leaving the other 3 or 4 students in the group having nothing to do. People often walked around the lab, chit-chatting with other students, or forming study groups, away from the focus of the cadaver. It was difficult getting 7 people to take turns working.

This semester, this has all changed. Because the incoming class is 208 students, the anatomy department decided to split the class into two streams of 104 students each. One stream of students go to lab from 1pm to 3pm, while the other stream of students go to lab from 3pm to 5pm. The students of each stream are then divided into three groups: Groups A, B, or C. For each lab session, two of the groups go to wet lab while the third group go to dry lab. The groups alternate going to wet and dry labs each day. Because of this splitting, there are around 35 students in the dry lab and 70 students in the wet lab at any one time. And because there are 18 cadavers, this means there are now only 3-4 students working on a cadaver at any one time, which gives students more chances to work on the body. It has only been three weeks, and I already see a major improvement in the way students utilize lab time.


In previous semesters, such as when I took anatomy, students never had enough time to finish their dissections during the two-hour lab period, resulting in students staying after class and TAs needing to wait for them to get finished to close the lab. Because of this, the lab was increased to three hours last semester, and the lab opening hours were extended to 8:30pm everyday. But rather than seeing improved completion of dissections with more lab time, we saw even less completion. Knowing they had three hours, my conjecture is that students took their time, leading to a less efficient use of time. With two hours, students were aware of their limited time and used their two hours in the lab more wisely. This semester, two-hour labs are back on the table, and the lab continues to be open until 8:30pm, with TAs coming into the lab from 7:30pm -8:30pm at night on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays to help student who come after hours.


Every semester, first semester students fill out evaluations about the Anatomy TA program. Two semesters ago, reading one of the evaluations, I chuckled. One student had wrote that some TAs “cling too much to their BRS’s like a baby to its binkey.” I found it funny because I knew it was all too true, and was something that must be changed.

In the past, we’ve had problems where TAs would carry the BRS around with them everywhere they go in lab. They would distract students away from the cadavers, and use their BRS to quiz students over material that could be reviewed outside of lab. Lab time is precious and should be utilized wisely, focusing on completing dissections and the cadavers, anatomy’s greatest teaching tool. Despite having as many TAs to help, and as many students to take turns dissecting, there had always been a problem of groups not finishing their dissections on time. This semester, TAs are no longer allowed to bring BRS’s into the lab, nor are they allowed to form teaching groups with students away from the cadavers (like teaching on the white board). As head TAs, we have made it very clear, almost too clear in the TA orientation that lab is for dissection and we as TAs are there to guide students in their dissections.


Yes, you heard right. In the past, dry lab had always been optional. Because of this, many students in the past did not show up to dry lab and therefore did not learn how to read radiographs and MRIs well (I’m guilty of this too). This is even true for the current TAs, many of whom do not feel comfortable or competent enough to help other students in dry lab. With dry lab mandatory now, this will all change. There is now a mini-lecture, as well as assignments to complete in dry lab. In addition to the lab practical exam which encompasses material in both wet and dry labs, there is now also a dry lab exit quiz each block, consisting of 10 questions, worth a total of 2% of the Anatomy Lab grade. We’ll have a new generation of radiograph-competent med students.


The microscopes are now used in the dry lab to look at histological slides. Before, there were never any slides set up for us to look at.   The Anatomy Department also replaced the 14 desktop computers in the middle of the dry lab with 40 laptop computers, with the intention of having a computer for every student in the dry lab. In addition, laptops offer the advantage of mobility to the student, so that students can carry the laptops from one station to another in the dry lab whenever needed. The anatomy department has also now started using a web-subscription based edition of VH Dissector Pro, rather than the software. It is the latest version of VH Dissector.


Head, neck, and internal organs are the most difficult parts of the body to dissect well. There is a lot of stuff going on in a small area in these parts of the body. In the past, these parts of the body had been butchered by students, who accidentally cut nerves or other important structures that shouldn’t be cut, or fail to make clean, distinctive dissections. Because of the meticulous attention that is required to dissect these areas, students in the past have spent too much time on cutting and cleaning and less on learning these parts. Because of this, prosected bodies are incorporated into the anatomy curriculum for the first time this semester.

What are prosected bodies? It’s basically a body (or body parts) that are already dissected beforehand. While most of the rest of the body are dissected by the students, the head, neck, heart, pelvis, and internal organs will all be prosected by the TAs. All students have to do now when learning these parts, are to come into the lab and learn to identify these structures on the body.


Because prosection requires a lot of expertise work, the anatomy department created a Prosector Program for the TAs. Any anatomy TA can tryout and if selected, join the program. For the tryout this semester,  we had the candidates dissect assigned regions of the arm or hand in preparation for the first mock exam. With no more details given, we see what the candidates dissect, and the quality of the dissections. Once selected and on board with the program, each prosector is assigned and responsible for a cadaver to work on, and does special cuts on that body. The program requires a two semester commitment, and leads to an eventual certification by Dr. Nash. This semester, there has been quite a lot of interest in the program, and we now have the prosectors we need.

For now, the prosector program is in its infancy, but in the future, we can foresee a program that expands into eventual preservat
ion or plastination of prosected parts, and creation of fine, professional specimens that can be used year after year for the teaching of anatomy to new medical students.