Skeleton holds a jar of tortoise brains. | Photo by Freddy Brewster

Dissecting the dead

Cadavers and animals specimens give HSU students a unique opportunity
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Cadavers and animal specimens give HSU students a unique opportunity

For many, the sight of a lifeless body is enough to make them spew their lunch. But for many in the sciences, it’s not a problem. The presence of lifeless bodies and the smell of embalming fluid is so commonplace for professor Moana Giacomini that she can enjoy a burger and chocolate chip cookies in the same room.

“I’ve been around them for so long in physical therapy school that it doesn’t bother me,” Giacomini said. “We had to dissect things all the time.”

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Professor Moana Giacomini poses with a human skeleton in front of a cadaver case. | Photo by Dajonea Robinson

HSU has four and a half human cadavers on campus—one is just a torso. Students in the kinesiology, pre-med and biology departments are among those who get to handle the cadavers. Two of the cadavers are male and all are on a five-year loan from UC Davis. The bodies sit in steel tanks filled with a solution of phenoxyethanol and water.

Each of the cadavers are used for different purposes, but all are dissected. One of them sits with their skin flayed back revealing muscles, tendons and ligaments. Others are in a similar condition and are used to exam to the reproductive, nervous and urinary systems among others. After pulling off body parts and organs students place them into their corresponding bucket, so nothing gets mixed up when they are reassembled.

“It is very important that we get to have these guys,” Giacomini said. “A book can never give you what a cadaver can. Especially the brain. Holding it. Feeling it. Understanding the size is important. That’s what makes this class special. There are a lot of [universities] that don’t have any.”

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Drawer full of human bones in a Science A lab. | Photo by Dajonea Robinson

Kinesiology student Martin Gordillo sat within two feet of the cadavers, fully engulfed in a hamburger and textbook as chemical smells wafted from the bodies. Gordillo was unfazed, but admitted that it was a little weird.

“It’s pretty cool to touch and feel the body,” Gordillo said. “Learning from a model is different. You don’t get to see the muscles. I’m a hands-on learner and getting to see a muscle, a vein or artery is pretty intense.”

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HSU student Martin Gordillo holds a spine in his classroom on March 5. | Photo by Dajonea Robinson

Not everybody in the anatomy classes are as chill as Giacomini and Gordillo are the around lifeless bodies. Giacomini said that she had one student who refused to touch the cadaver all semester, but still managed to get an A. Gordillo said that he has had a few lab partners with similar responses.

“I had a lab partner last semester who would gag a little when he was near them,” Gordillo said. “I had another one that didn’t want to touch them, but she got over it.”

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Preserved alligator is kept in a jar in the Science A building. | Photo by Dajonea Robinson

The number of lifeless bodies on campus are not just limited to the human form. HSU has a wide array of animal specimens for students to dissect. John Reiss is a professor of zoology and teaches students about the internal structures of our non-human counterparts.

“They are used for understanding how animals work and how they compare to others,” Reiss said. “We use worms, crayfish, squids, sharks, frogs, fetal pigs. For invertebrates, we are trying to understand what makes things work and how they evolved into humans.”

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Junior Evan Miller takes measurements of the bone structure of a small rodent. | Photo By Freddy Brewster

Reiss said that in one of his classes students dissect sharks. The whole process takes about a third of the semester and students start at the tail and work their way to the head. It is also not uncommon for students to work on large sea mammals as well. Reiss said that HSU has whales, dolphins and sea lions and that the specimens “come in waves.”

“It is really cool that our students have hands on experience,” Reiss said. “A lot of larger universities have eliminated that, and that is what makes HSU a good school. Would you rather look at a picture, or get in there and do some hands-on learning?”

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A preserved owl is kept in a jar in the Sience A building. | Photo by Dajonea Robinson

That hands-on learning is what brought junior Evan Miller to HSU all the way from Washington D.C. Wildlife major Miller is currently working on a project comparing the bones and muscles between moles and shrews. This summer he is heading to Madagascar to study lemurs.

“I love D.C., but I didn’t have the opportunities that I have here at HSU,” Miller said.

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