August is vacation time at most universities. For members of our research lab, however, summer is the busy season. We’re completely consumed by teaching a comprehensive medical gross anatomy course at our academic home, the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM). “Wait…what? I thought you were dinosaur guys…paleontologists, not medical people.” I get that all the time. We’re both, and it’s not as crazy as it sounds, nor as unusual as you might think.
A tradition under the radar
For decades, medical schools have quietly hired organismal evolutionary biologists (e.g., paleontologists, anthropologists) to teach cadaver-based gross anatomy to med students. The image of med schools is of sophisticated biomedical research, white lab coats, clinical trials, and patients, and so how did paleontology find a home? Put simply, somebody has to teach gross anatomy. Human anatomy is not really a rich research discipline anymore, and so if med schools want faculty who are passionate about anatomy (and who also, of course, can bring in federal grant dollars), they have turned to scholars who study the anatomy of species other than humans…including dinosaurs. Among the many programs in which paleo and anthro types teach gross anatomy are Brown, Harvard-MIT, Chicago, Duke, Northwestern, Case Western, Missouri, and USC (a Facebook query I posted yielded responses naming over three dozen med schools). Personally, I’ve taught anatomy at Kansas (my master’s school), the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (my PhD school), the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine (my first job), and, for the past 16 years, at OU-HCOM. In fact, osteopathic medical schools are particularly fond of our ilk, including not just NYCOM and OU-HCOM, but also the schools at Oklahoma State, Kirksville, Kansas City, Midwestern (both Illinois and Arizona campuses), Touro Nevada, and Western University in Pomona.
A strange alliance that works
So, the need for trained medical gross anatomists can be filled by employing paleontologists. Everybody wins! Indeed, without medical school anatomy, the employment landscape would be very different. For example, all of the doctoral students coming out of my lab have landed excellent faculty or postdoc positions in med schools (e.g., UCLA, LSU, Marshall, Missouri, NEOUCOM, Arkansas). Moreover, and this is key, the anatomical training that paleobiology grad students get in a medical context is so detailed, rich, and integrated with other disciplines (e.g., histology, neuroscience, physiology) that it benefits their paleontology—they become very sophisticated evolutionary morphologists. It’s not all roses, however, in that, despite all the success that the WitmerLab team has had with grants, publications, and notoriety, there are still times when it does feel like we’re living secret, parallel lives. Many people familiar with our dinosaur research are astonished to hear that I’m at a med school, whereas the medical people are often mystified by my research focus. In fact, that’s why I’m doing this post: to step out of the shadows and declare that, yes, I’m both a medical educator and a paleontologist.
The medical side of the WitmerLab
The anatomy curricula at OU-HCOM have required me to develop an understanding of the clinical relevance of human anatomical structure. Virtually all of the anatomy we teach is in the context of dysfunction and disease. I was hired in 1995 to develop and deliver the anatomy curriculum for our first-year problem-based curricular track. In 1997, I also started working with resident training in our consortium of affiliated hospitals known as the CORE, working with surgery, pediatrics, and ENT residency programs to deliver clinical anatomy programs at a very advanced level. But my main teaching responsibility for the past seven years has been to develop and lead an intensive clinical anatomy course for the entering med students. Known informally as the “Immersion,”it runs for only about four weeks, but meets almost every day. I’m in the gross anatomy lab for 6-7 hours a day, plus a few lectures and weekly exams. The research grad students in my lab are side-by-side with me as TAs, honing their dissection chops, as well as cultivating the Socratic teaching style that I advocate because it promotes the critical-thinking that medical professionals require. The grad students also TA other parts of our curricula (when not on NSF fellowships or assistantships), but my annual teaching gig is limited to the one month of the Immersion in August. Check out the companion photo album from the 2011 Immersion on the WitmerLab Facebook page.
3D visualization of human anatomy
WitmerLab has become fairly well known for CT-scan-based analyses of dinosaurs and other vertebrates, which we then disseminate as various kinds of 3D visualizations (see the 3D Alligator and other projects). This past August we launched a site with a number of visualizations of human anatomy (and more coming). It was a real team approach with basically everyone in the lab participating, although Ryan Ridgely did most of the heavy lifting in Amira and Maya. We currently deliver skull anatomy, as well as skeletal and vascular anatomy of the upper extremity. All of our visualizations are freely downloadable at no cost, can be viewed on- or off-line, and can be shared with no restrictions.
It’s fair to say that, as a child dreaming of being a professional dinosaur paleontologist, I had no inkling that I’d also be a medical educator. I don’t regret that wrinkle at all. In the WitmerLab, we often feel like we’re a part of something larger than our individual projects, and that same sense of being part of something bigger and more important than yourself pertains to medical education. I’m proud to be able to help train the next generation of physicians, just as I’m proud to work with the outstanding research students in the lab. A diverse career is a fulfilling career.