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Cadavers, Voice Boxes, Cow Lungs

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“When you come face-to-face with a human brain, you get a visceral sense of how fragile and astounding the human neurological system is,” says Sarah Curtis, a graduate student in the Speech-Language Pathology program, after she and her classmates spent an afternoon at Harvard Medical School examining dissected brains. “It was an opportunity to experience a brain in a different way because we’ll be expected to work with how they function every day.”

In addition to manikins and standardized patients, students are exposed to various parts of human anatomy to better understand the physical basis of underlying conditions and diseases. For students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy and Doctor of Occupational Therapy programs, it means being involved in cadaver dissection in the pathology lab at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

Speech-language pathology students examining a sheep's voice box at the Mass General Voice Center Research labs.

Students in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program study musculoskeletal and neurological anatomy in the HMS cadaver lab and spend time in the autopsy lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. They also observe pathologists in the brain lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where they learn about deficits that are visible in a dissected brain. On the IHP campus, they inflate cow lungs to see the elasticity and alveoli function as well as dissect animal hearts, eyes, and kidneys.

Speech-language pathology students can view diagrams and 3-D models of the brain and review MRIs and PET scans. But for Curtis, seeing—and holding—an actual brain brought learning to life. “It was like the difference between reading a map and actually driving to a place,” she explains. “When you have a brain in front of you, you get a very different sense of what you’re working with.”

Communication Sciences and Disorders Adjunct Professor James Heaton says students also receive invaluable experience dissecting and phonating (using airflow to produce voice) the voice boxes of sheep in MGH’s Voice Center Research Labs. “Time and time again, speech-language pathology students hear about how the length and tension of the vocal folds affect the tone and pitch of a person’s voice,” says Dr. Heaton. “Here they can hold a larynx in their hands and manipulate the tissues in a way they would never be able to do – even with the most compliant patient – in a clinical setting.