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Even medical dissection goes virtual

Q.  For almost a millennium, human body dissection has been a cornerstone of medical education, but change is now on its way at a few U.S. medical schools.  What’s changed?

A.  Cadaverless anatomy curriculum, in which students “will probe the human body using three-dimensional renderings in virtual reality combined with physical replicas of the organs and real patient medical images,” says Bahar Gholipour in “Scientific American” magazine.  Traditional approaches have limitations, including the length of time it takes to dissect a cadaver, the inaccessibility of some body parts, and the mismatch between the textures and colors of an embalmed cadaver’s organs and those of a living body.  Also, for new medical school programs, it costs several million dollars to build a cadaver laboratory and requires additional funds to care for the donated bodies.

By donning VR headsets or augmented-reality goggles, students can examine an organ from all angles, connecting structure with function by watching a beating heart, for example, and can also add the entire circulatory system to better see relations among structures.  But in a virtual body, depth perception may be hard to develop and students will not see bodies’ natural anatomical variations.  Also, they may “lose the emotional, even philosophical impact of working with a cadaver, commonly seen as a doctor’s first patient.”

Thus, the question remains as to whether students learn as well using digital tools.  But after nearly a millennium of human body dissection in medical education, a historic transition may be emerging.

Q.  Word lovers, let’s have a little fun with these “silly-sounding” Americanisms from Anu Garg’s website “A.Word.A.Day.”  How many can you define: “ballyhoo,” “foofaraw,” “humdinger,” “lollapalooza” and “ripsnorter”?

A.  “Ballyhoo,” of uncertain origin, can mean “uproar” or “sensational or extravagant promotion,” first used in 1901.  Originating from the American West, “foofaraw” is defined as “excessive or unnecessary ornamentation,” but its formation too is unknown.  “Someone or something outstanding, remarkable or unusual” is a “humdinger,” perhaps a blend of “hummer” and “dinger,” both meaning someone or something exceptional.  Also exceptional is “lollapalooza,” an exceptional person, thing or event, that gives its name to a popular music festival.

Finally, “ripsnorter” refers to “someone or something remarkable in excellence, intensity, strength, etc.,” perhaps a fanciful coinage from “rip” (to tear) and “snorter” (something extraordinary).

How’s that for a ripsnorter of an item?

Q.  What is SnotBot and how is it helping researchers monitor ocean health?

A.  A four-propeller drone about the size of a toaster oven, SnotBot is flown just above a breaching whale to collect its exhaled breath condensate – a.k.a. snot.  “Whale snot contains an enormous amount of biological information, including DNA, hormones, and microorganisms.  Scientists can use that information to determine a whale’s health, sex, and pregnancy status, and details about its genetics and microbiome,” say Bryn Keller and Ted Willke in “IEEE Spectrum” magazine.  Previously, to collect such information, researchers would “zoom past a surfacing whale in a boat and shoot it with a specially designed crossbow to capture a small core sample of skin and blubber.” SnotBot makes the process less stressful for both whales and researchers.

The drone also has a high-resolution camera that reveals the whale’s overall shape and size and often provides unique identifiers from tail fluke structure and markings.  As apex predators with wide-ranging migration patterns, humpback whales are an excellent early-warning system for environmental threats to the ocean as a whole.  “Thanks to Project SnotBot, we’ll be able to find out – accurately, efficiently, and at a reasonable cost – just how the health and numbers of whales in our oceans are trending.”

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