North Park Science Students Study Anatomy at Rush Medical College

North Park Science Students Dissecting

A unique partnership with Rush University Medical Center provides hands-on learning for North Park students.

CHICAGO (June 22, 2009) – While prime-time medical dramas and Discovery Channel documentaries have done much to demystify the inner workings of the human body, the chance to study it “up-close-and-personal” is another experience entirely. And thanks to professor of biology Dr. Jeff Nelson and colleagues at Chicago’s Rush Medical College, it is an experience a number of North Park science students are taking advantage of.

A North Park alumnus who has taught at the University for the last 12 years, Nelson helped broker the connection between his alma mater and the medical college, a division of the well-respected Rush University Medical Center. Today about 50 of his students study in the state-of-the-art cadaver labs there each year. About 30-40 are first-year students, many of whom are interested in health careers such as nursing. An additional 10 seniors opt to take an eight-week advanced anatomy class with Nelson and his North Park biology colleague, Dr. Peter Pearson.

“Most really enjoy the opportunity to visit the lab,” Nelson says. “Many are amazed at the complexity of the forearm, the size of a liver, or the structure of a simple joint such as the hip. “

The relationship with Rush began when Nelson was on sabbatical working with Dr. James Williams, director of the first-year medical student course there. Since then, Nelson has continued to volunteer in the lab in the fall and winter, and Williams has graciously allowed North Park students to use the facility as well.

“Studying at Rush was a privilege,” says Josh Boydston, a 2009 graduate who is now pursuing a career in physical therapy. “The staff there was very helpful . . . they were all very knowledgeable and gracious enough to take time out of their day to help undergraduates learn at a higher level. My sister was a student at Rush at the same time that our class was there so it was fun to be able to see what she was working on and compare that to what we were learning.”

Boydston admits that he was more intrigued than he was anxious the first time he worked with human cadavers for Nelson’s class. He notes that Nelson made his students more comfortable and confident about dissecting cadavers as time went on, helping them to reconcile a scientific reverence for the body with the understanding that what they were studying was simply “a shell of human” after the attributes that give a life significance have passed away.

As a May 12 article in the Chicago Tribune illustrates, the last 70 years has brought about a change in the etiquette of working with cadavers throughout higher education. A far cry from the pre-World War II era (where even grave robbing was condoned in the name of research) academia is embracing a less tactical, more ethical approach to the sciences—something that North Park has historically emphasized. Boydston says he appreciates the ways North Park’s science faculty integrate themes of ethics, and even social justice, into the curriculum. As a student, he admired Nelson’s passion for bringing medicine to the underprivileged and underserved, and his willingness to share personal stories from his time practicing medicine in Haiti.

In addition to a thoughtful and ethical approach to conducting science, what does Nelson hope his students will take away from his classes?

“I hope students remember that I am as interested in a relationship with them as I am in sharing anatomy with them, “ Nelson says. “I may have taught the material many times but each student’s response to the beauty and design we see in anatomy keeps it all interesting to me. . . . It is really special to be around energetic young people each day.”

If or when North Park should have its own cadaver lab in the future, Nelson says he still hopes to continue the collaboration with Rush. “It lets the students see the next step they hope to take,” he says. “They see med students and physicians at work in the lab and can appreciate the critical role anatomy will play in their career.”


Photo: Although North Park biology students engage in animal dissection in the University labs, the opportunity to study at Rush Medical College adds a new dimension to the study of anatomy.