Beyond memorization

Q&A: What do fossils and osteopathic medical education have in common?

Jonathan H. Geisler, PhD, is an expert on the evolutionary history of whales, dolphins and porpoises. He’s also an anatomy professor at NYITCOM.

On your first day of anatomy lab as an osteopathic medical student, you arrive to learn your professor is… a paleontologist? Though it might sound surprising, it’s actually not an unusual situation, particularly at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM) in Old Westbury, New York, where most anatomy professors have significant expertise in paleontology.

The DO spoke with Jonathan H. Geisler, PhD, who chairs NYITCOM’s anatomy department, about why the two disciplines complement one another and how his paleontology background informs his approach to teaching. Following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Why does the crossover between paleontology and medical education work?

Paleontologists are often excellent anatomists due to the special challenges fossils pose. Fossil remains are typically fragmentary, so figuring out what part of the skeleton is represented and what type of species the fragments belong to is very challenging. It requires an extraordinary amount of anatomical knowledge to do it well.

NYITCOM anatomy professor Jonathan H. Geisler, PhD, uses a rock pick to unearth fossils in the Gobi Desert. (Photo provided by Dr. Geisler)

Human anatomy is critically important for the practice of medicine, but it has also been extensively studied. However, there are many animal species alive today for which the anatomy is barely known. Many anatomists gravitate towards non-human subjects for just that reason: that’s where big anatomical discoveries can be made.

By studying with us, osteopathic medical students get the opportunity to learn anatomy from experts in the field, take part in groundbreaking anatomical research, and broaden their minds by learning about non-human anatomy.

For members of the anatomy faculty at NYITCOM, the benefits of this crossover are obvious: we get to participate in training osteopathic physicians who go on to do great things.

What’s the biggest thing you want students to learn?

We approach anatomy as a scientific question. That means when a student in the lab asks us to confirm the identity of an anatomical structure, we usually ask them a question in return: “What is your hypothesis and what anatomical relationships do you predict based on that hypothesis?”

Our goal is to get students to develop their critical thinking skills and realize that anatomical knowledge is more than just memorizing a long list of terms.

What’s been your favorite moment so far as a medical educator?

It’s tough to pick just one favorite moment, but I remember a time when students in anatomy lab found an unusual structure wrapping around the human subclavian artery that they couldn’t find in an anatomical atlas. My faculty colleagues and I were stumped as well.

Upon further research, we learned that this structure, the ansa subclavia, is not an anomaly. Instead it is an expected, but often overlooked, structure that has no known clinical applications in patients. However, a physician who is doing research with lab animals should know this structure because it a proven way to experimentally stimulate the heart.

That experience is a good illustration of why it’s so important to encourage students to ask questions and explore human anatomy. Just because it’s not in the textbook doesn’t mean you should ignore it.

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