Comparing creatures

When your anatomy professor is a paleontologist

NYITCOM faculty members use their knowledge of ancient and modern animal species to teach anatomy to osteopathic medical students.

What can osteopathic medical students learn from studying the skull of a dolphin or researching the evolution of a giraffe’s neck? More than you might think.

Students at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM) in Old Westbury, New York, receive anatomy instruction from professors with extensive experience in paleontology—a practice that is common at many medical schools.

Jonathan H. Geisler, PhD, who chairs the department, says he and his colleagues consider themselves anatomists rather than paleontologists because their knowledge of animals such as turtles, giraffes, whales, rhinos and lizards draws as much on living species as it does on fossils.

Taking the broad view

Comparative anatomy is an especially valuable framework for future DOs because of the way it echoes the osteopathic philosophy of medicine, Dr. Geisler notes. “Osteopathic physicians are trained to view the body as an integrated whole and take a broad view of patients that includes their environment, community and life history,” he says. Comparative anatomy also takes a broad view, situating each person as part of the broader species of humans and humans as part of a spectrum of diversity that spans all living creatures.

NYITCOM anatomy professor Nikos Solounias, PhD, holds a giraffe vertebra at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (Photo provided by Melinda Danowitz, OMS III)

Ultimately, Dr. Geisler says, he and his colleagues hope this wide-angle perspective will help students become innovative thinkers. “We want them to be aware of the broader world around them and how that might provide a surprising answer for a problem they’re facing,” he says.

Learning in context

For Melinda Danowitz, a third-year student at NYITCOM, learning about human anatomy within the larger context of animal anatomy was invaluable. Some aspects of human anatomy, such as the way the bladder is positioned, initially struck her as odd. “However, because of their paleontology background, my professors were able to explain that the bladder positioning developed when humans walked on all fours, so that’s why it looks the way it does,” she explains.

Rebecca Domalski, OMS IV, studied the cervical spine with NYITCOM anatomy professor Nikos Solounias, PhD, who is an expert on giraffes. “Dr. Solounias brought in a giraffe vertebra and pointed out major landmarks,” she says. “It was very helpful to see similar anatomical features on a larger scale, and helped me to better understand what I was seeing in a human skeleton.”

NYITCOM students and anatomy faculty presented at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Berlin in 2014. From left: Rebecca Domalski, OMS IV; Melinda Danowitz, OMS III; Matthew Mihlbachler, PhD; Shaun Hager, OMS IV; Nikos Solounias, PhD; and Brian Beatty, PhD. (Photo provided by Melinda Danowitz, OMS III)

Anatomy research

Danowitz, Domalski and Shaun Hager, OMS IV, were so fascinated by comparative anatomy that they applied to be part of NYITCOM’s academic medicine scholars program. Scholars spend a year between their third and fourth year of medical school conducting research, teaching and completing coursework toward a master’s degree. When they graduate from osteopathic medical school after five years, they’ve earned a DO degree and a master’s in neuromusculoskeletal sciences.

Danowitz assisted with research inferring animals’ diet based on examination of their tooth enamel. She and Domalski also studied giraffes’ necks with Dr. Soulounias. By studying the cervical and cranial structures of extinct and living giraffes, the researchers developed hypotheses about how giraffes’ necks elongated over time.

Hager, who studied the teeth of animals such as giraffes, zebras and rhinos, says he’s certain the experience will make him a more well-rounded physician than he would have been otherwise.“Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about research methods, it also showed me how much there is to learn in the world,” he says.

3 comments

  1. I very much like the idea of “cross-training”, it undoubtably opens and expands the mind of the practitioner, especially in their clinical and social observations of patients.
    Dont you just love those lightbulb moments!?

  2. I’m a 1985 graduate from WVSOM. One of our anatomy professors, Jim Wells, PhD, did lots of research with lemurs and taught us about mammalian bipedal locomotion.
    Those lectures were very educational, informative and entertaining.

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