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Alfred University’s digital cadaver table provides unique learning, teaching opportunities

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Alfred University student Elias Orfanides (left), a senior biology major from Bath, NY, and assistant professor of anatomy and physiology Jennifer Gordon operate the biology lab’s digital cadaver table.

ALFRED, NY – At most typical college or university biology labs, the human body is studied by using textbooks, molded plastic models, and printed diagrams. Some, possessing the financial resources to do so, utilize real human cadavers. At Alfred University, a relatively new technology allows instructors and students access to a seemingly endless resource for studying the human anatomy.

Last October, Alfred University’s Division of Biology and Biochemistry acquired an Anatomage digital cadaver table, bringing to the department a piece of equipment most often found in graduate level and professional environments. The table, about seven feet in length by two feet wide, contains a digital database of four human cadavers, as well as more than 15,000 computerized tomography (CT) scans of human and animal bodies. With a touch-screen surface, images of bodies can be manipulated so that specific body systems (digestive, respiratory, circulatory, i.e.), organs, and skeletal parts can be isolated and studied.

Scans of human bodies show medical conditions—such as abdominal aneurysms, ectopic pregnancies, hardened arteries, and bone fractures—which can be examined in ways not possible with diagrams or models.

Jennifer Gordon, assistant professor of anatomy and physiology at Alfred University, is the resident digital cadaver table guru. She has had plenty of experience using the cadaver table throughout her teaching career. A graduate of SUNY Oneonta, Gordon first saw the equipment featured in her alma mater’s alumni newsletter about 10 years ago, when the technology was new. At the time, she was teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and worked with the biology department there to acquire an Anatomage digital table.

The cadaver images in the table’s database are from people who agreed to donate their bodies for use in the National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project after they had passed away. The Visible Human Project created complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the human body by encasing the cadavers in gelatin and then cutting them in one-tenth millimeter intervals. Each cross-section was photographed, and the images were then re-established digitally. The images are included in the database of digital cadavers like the one in Alfred University’s biology lab.

Gordon said the digital cadaver is extremely beneficial from a teaching standpoint. “It makes our job as instructors exponentially better. The possibilities (for instruction) are endless,” she said. The technology, is advantageous from a cost standpoint, as labs that use real cadavers can be very expensive.

“The number of undergraduate programs (using the digital cadaver table) are few,” Gordon noted, “but the number that have actual cadaver labs are fewer.”

The digital cadaver table “gives our students access to an extensive library of medically relevant 3D scans and images of real human and animal bodies,” said Jean Cardinale, professor of biology and division chair. “It is a resource that allows our students to advance their knowledge and understanding of anatomical and physiological science to a much greater degree than traditional resources.”

Gordon said she uses the equipment to teach her anatomy and physiology classes, and that it can also be used for upper-level classes like human pathophysiology, immunology, toxicology, and animal nutrition. Biomaterials engineering majors can use the table to study artificial joints and prosthetics, which are present in some of the human body CT scans. For students pursuing any number of careers in health and science, the cadaver table is a valuable learning tool.

“It hits all the medical disciplines: physical therapy, occupational therapy, athletic training, physician assistant, nursing, chiropractic, pre-med, veterinary,” Gordon said.

Elias Orfanides, a senior biology major from Bath, NY, lauded the benefits of the digital cadaver table.

“I started using it right away,” said Orfanides, who is set to enroll in the Pennsylvania State University School of Medicine’s Physician Assistant program after graduating from Alfred in the spring. “It’s very helpful for learning about the different bones and muscles and how they are attached. It really gives you a different perspective” than one would get from a traditional model or diagram.

Orfanides said being exposed to the cadaver table has helped prepare him for graduate school. “It’s giving me an idea of what I’ll see when I go into an actual cadaver lab,” he explained. “It will allow me to better identify (parts of the human body) by structure, as opposed to an artist’s rendering.”

Gordon said the table has proven to be a valuable recruiting tool.

“It’s huge,” she said. “We put this on the tour (for prospective students). We want to show students and parents that academically, we are just as far along as our larger counterparts. We can say, ‘check this out.’ This is what makes us better than other undergraduate biology programs.”

“For students who want to go to a small school, you won’t find this at many of them,” Orfanides added. “And here, everyone has a chance to use it, individually or in a small group setting.”

“The cadaver table is a window into the intricate functioning of our bodies, from gross anatomy down to the cellular level,” Cardinale said. “This kind of exploration is unparalleled, and we are excited for the opportunities it will provide our students.”

Alfred University assistant professor of anatomy and physiology Jennifer Gordon (second from right) demonstrates the biology lab’s digital cadaver table to students, from left: Elias Orfanides, senior biology major from Bath, NY; Natalia Rychman, sophomore health fitness management major from New Eagle, PA; Monica Lewis, senior health fitness management major from Buffalo; and Morgan Drohan, senior biomaterials engineering major from Pleasant Valley, NY.

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