Neuroscience faculty keeps anatomy lab hands-on despite pandemic, students excel

Dec. 15, 2020

The class of 104 students who just completed Human Structure and Function, a fundamental course for all medical students, is the top performing class in more than two decades. Human Structure and Function covers anatomy, histology, embryology, and physiology and requires some in-person and hands on learning. This success came despite the challenges of learning and teaching during a global pandemic. “We are exceedingly proud of the students this year for this kind of achievement,” said Director of Anatomical Sciences Strand of Human Structure and Function Martha Gdowski, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience. “I’m equally as proud of the anatomical science educators of the course. Many of us have been doing this a long time, but we were able to adapt to allow the students to be successful.”From Left: Jennifer Prutsman-Pfeiffer, Ph.D. (wearing the gown that students were required to wear in the anatomy laboratory), John Olschowka, Ph.D., Sarah McConnell, Ph.D., Sergiy Nadtochiy, Ph.D., Linda Callahan, Ph.D.   Not pictured: David Kornack, Ph.D., Diane Piekut, Ph.D., Martha Gdowski, Ph.D.

Gdowski said the support of Senior Associate Dean of Medical Student Education David R. Lambert, M.D., as well as careful planning and teamwork among faculty, made keeping some in-person learning possible. “We were the only medical school in New York State that didn't modify our teaching strategy for the anatomy lab, but rather spent hours modifying the space and PPE protocols,” Gdowski said. “We wanted to deliver an equivalent anatomy lab curriculum to what we’ve provided in the past.” Alternating start and stop times for labs, occupancy limits at the dissection table, and unidirectional traffic in the anatomy corridor, all helped minimize contact. Problem based learning sessions were also in-person and under the same strict guidelines. All large group lectures were virtual. The histology lab was designed with breakout rooms for necessary discussion groups to meet. In spring, faculty also prepared a virtual plan for the anatomy lab that proved to be an invaluable tool. “At first I thought oh this was a lot of work for not much return, but it's been a huge return on investment because it's made it really easy to help students that needed to miss.”

Gdowski gives credit to virtual learning for some of the students’ success. It gave students longer access to course instruction. But also, she said the change in students’ social behavior during the pandemic gave them more time to study. “Students were more self-reliant, they prepared. It was more fun for them and for us as educators because we're really able to help them get through the dissections and really learn what they need to learn in that space. So that's certainly an element that we want to retain moving forward.”

The Department of Neuroscience dates to the Anatomy Department – one of the five original basic science departments of the medical school.