What It's Like to Take Anatomy Lab

A medical student answers questions about what it was like to take anatomy lab in medical school.

Gordon Pelegrin

Gordon Pelegrin

Medical School: Georgetown University School of Medicine, 2016

Hometown: Fairfax, VA

When did you first begin classes in the anatomy lab? How often are you there?

Anatomy lab takes place during the first year of medical school. For me, it began early in November and continued until mid-April. Our classes are structured such that there are usually a few weeks with anatomy lab followed by a few weeks without it. When we do have lab, it’s twice a week for about three to four hours, although this varies from course to course.

Give us the layout. What do you hear, see, and notice in the lab?

The first thing you notice, even before you step foot in the lab, is the smell. A lot of people expect there to be a rancid odor, but the strongest smell is actually the preservatives, which aren’t so bad. If you’ve ever dissected a pig or cat in biology class, then you probably know the smell I’m talking about. For those who haven’t, think cleaning solutions without the lemony freshness. Each lab has about 10 tables with a cadaver in a plastic bag covered by a cloth. Between some of the tables there are computer stations for quick referencing and the sinks are located along the walls. The lab usually gets pretty noisy with people quizzing each other, bone saws buzzing, and people playing music from their iPads while dissecting.

What kind of assignments did you get?

There is no real “homework” due; however, you are expected to have reviewed what cuts you are supposed to make to reveal significant structures ahead of time. One group member per table leads the dissection and is expected to be an expert on that lab material. During each lab there is a different leader so that all the group members have the opportunity to lead. While your group is dissecting, teachers and TA’s will come around to ask you questions about the structures, such as the innervation or function. At the end of the module you are given a table quiz. You and your group members are asked to identify a specific structure and are given 30 seconds to find it.

How many people work together at each station?

There are four to five people working at each station. It’s fairly rare that all five can dissect simultaneously because it would get crowded and we would block each other’s light. Often, two people are dissecting while the rest are reviewing and quizzing each other. When the two people dissecting get tired, we switch places.

Do you have any advice for someone nervous about working in the lab?

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes in the lab. Remember that these people generously donated their bodies in order for us to improve our knowledge of medicine. They knew medical students would be working on them, and they knew mistakes could be made. The best way to honor their memory is to learn from everything you do in lab.

What surprised you or didn’t you expect?

I was surprised by how much the internal structures varied from cadaver to cadaver. My group once spent half an hour looking for a major vein before we realized it just didn’t exist in our cadaver. People look as different on the inside as they do on the outside.

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