Iowa State University anatomy lab is finishing its first year with human donors

New equipment inside the ISU human anatomy laboratory

The human anatomy lab housed in the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine features new equipment, ventilation and security systems. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – A new anatomy laboratory at Iowa State University is nearing the end of its first year offering students an opportunity to study human cadavers donated for teaching purposes.

The anatomy laboratory has enhanced the education of graduate and undergraduate students, many of whom are preparing for professional programs such as medical school, said Dr. Michael Lyons, a senior lecturer in biomedical sciences who oversees the lab. Lyons said the six donor bodies, provided by the University of Iowa’s deeded body program, highlight collaboration among the state’s Regents institutions to improve student outcomes.

Around 50 students enrolled in Iowa State’s one-year master’s program in biomedical sciences took the human anatomy course this year. The master’s program, housed in the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine, aims to prepare students for a range of opportunities, from landing careers in health sciences to applying to medical, veterinary and dental school. The students rotated among the six donors, gaining valuable insight into the ways human anatomy can differ from one person to the next, Lyons said. After the graduate student class, the prosected donors are then utilized for an undergraduate human gross anatomy course.

The laboratory houses three male and three female donors that were between the ages of 67 and 98 at death, displaying a variety of age-related anatomical changes and pathologies that a single textbook can’t cover.

“Anatomy textbooks are going to show you average anatomy,” Lyons said. “But working with donor bodies shows you that ‘average’ usually isn’t reality. That’s a valuable lesson for these students to learn.”

Lyons said human dissection teaches students to think like functional anatomists with the ability to see how adjacent systems and organs work in concert to execute vital functions, rather than in isolation.

A partnership between Iowa State and the University of Iowa made the anatomy lab possible. The ISU Department of Biomedical Sciences reached out to Brian Chapman, director of the deeded body program at the University of Iowa, which provides body donors to a number of colleges for teaching purposes.
“The availability of human donors is not in abundance,” Chapman said. “We’re fortunate to have people in the state of Iowa who are generous and open to making this donation so students can have this opportunity.”

The deeded body program receives around 220 donor bodies every year. After study, they’re returned to the University of Iowa and cremated. Donor families then receive the cremated remains if they so wish, or the remains are buried in a cemetery in Iowa City. The University of Iowa’s Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology holds a memorial service every year to recognize the contribution donors make to the education of anatomy students.

Because Iowa State didn’t have a human anatomy laboratory when Lyons arrived on campus two years ago, he had to oversee the installation of new facilities and proper equipment. Under the direction of Dr. Anumantha Kanthasamy, Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Sciences and department chair, Lyons and Program Coordinator William Robertson established state-of-the-art ventilation and security systems as well as technology to further enhance the student learning experience. Only authorized students and faculty gain access to the laboratory, Lyons said.

In addition, each table in the laboratory is equipped with a flat-screen monitor that allows students to call up dissection manuals and textbooks or view footage from another table. That feature allows the instructor to point out interesting or informative features without requiring every student in the lab to crowd around a single table.

With the lab’s first year nearly in the books, Lyons reported positive learning outcomes for all the students. And beyond a better grasp of anatomy, he said the students also come away with a feeling of gratitude to the donors and their families.

“The students gain an appreciation for human donation,” he said. “They gain an understanding of what that gift meant for their education.”