Monday, August 25, 2014

Use Eponyms with Style!

Paul Langerhans

I love eponyms!

I'm a bit sad that eponyms—terms that include a proper name—are going out of style in the world of human sciences, it seems.

The international lists of anatomic terminology recommend against most eponyms, providing descriptive terms in their place.  For example, pancreatic islet is the term  preferred to the eponym islet of Langerhans.  Osteon is preferred over haversian system.

Of course, I get that.  Descriptive terms are more intuitive and therefore easier to understand, learn, and remember. Related to that is that they are more accurate when it comes to medical applications.  And I'm all about accuracy in the medical professions.

It's just kind of fun using eponyms.  And kind of sad to feel like I am leaving behind all those wonderful women and men who discovered our parts way back when.

But it's not just the international lists of anatomy that are leaving eponyms behind—all the "authorities," including most A&P and medical textbooks are doing it. Professional societies, associations, and boards in the basic sciences and the health professions are doing it.  So if we want to be "in style" with our terminology—and more importantly, make sure our students are sporting the latest linguistic style—we'd better pay attention to the trends, eh?

Let me give you some unasked-for fashion tips if you want to be a stylish A&P professor:

Avoid eponyms

If there's an accepted descriptive term, it's best to use that rather than the eponym.

Be bilingual

Some folks you'll encounter are old-fashioned or possibly don't know the newer descriptive term.  Or they know both and use them interchangeably.  Because we're on the cusp of a fashion revolution here, the most competent professionals will know both and be able to switch back and forth easily as the context requires. The goal is to understand and be understood, right?

What to do if you have to use an eponym

Then use an eponym! There are some commonly used terms for which there really isn't a great descriptive term to replace an eponym.  For example, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, and other disorders often don't have a widely accepted alternative. So absolute avoidance of eponyms is not (yet) possible.

Fashionable uses of eponyms

If you must use an eponym, the trendy folks at AMA and elsewhere avoid the use of possessive forms.  For example, notice how I used the term Parkinson disease above and not Parkinson's disease?  It's better to use Down syndrome than Down's syndrome—and even better to use trisomy 21 syndrome.

Likewise, the possessive loop of Henle is out of favor but using Henle loop may still get you into most of the trendy clubs.

Gabriele Falloppio
Illusory eponym styles

When you try to get away with using a possessive form of an eponym and yet still avoid arrest by the fashion police, you have to be very cunning.  Here's a common way that's done: use the adjective form of a proper name.  So if you want to honor Gabriele Falloppio's work in describing uterine tubes, then use his Latinized name (Fallopius) in the form of an adjective and call them Fallopian tubes.

But, you may say, that's not a very clever masking of the fact that it's an eponym. In fact, it's pretty obvious, right?  Well here's the sly part: cover it up by using a lowercase letter—thus obscuring the fact that it incorporates a proper noun. That's why many sources use fallopian tube instead of Fallopian tube.

Terms like eustachian tube and haversian canal may not seem like well-hidden eponyms in our context here, where we're actually focusing on eponyms. But most grand stage illusions—like Blackstone's making an elephant appear on stage from thin air—rely on such subtle misdirection.

So when you are using an adjective form of an eponym, it's best not to capitalize it and risk possible arrest by the fashion police.

Fashion rules are not really rules

With any fashion, the "rules" are not usually rules in the formal sense.  They are simple formulations of trends that, if heeded, will likely save you some embarrassment when you don't appear to be cool.  So if you have a good reason—or even a lame reason—to ignore these rules, I think you'll probably survive. People laugh (even hoot) at my disregard for current clothing fashion all the time—you get used to it.

OK, sometimes fashion rules really are rules

As with any professional communication, sometimes fashion rules get set in stone in a required style to which you must adhere in your work.  Sort of like a dress code for words. For example, students learn how to use professional styles when we require that they submit their assignments in APA, Chicago, or CBE style. Likewise, in publishing journal articles, books, and other works, there are rules established that provide consistency—and, therefore, also accuracy.  Each publisher, sometimes each journal or textbook, has it's own house style that defines such things. So if your journal editor insists on Eustachian tube instead of auditory tube or eustachian tube, then I recommend doing it.  Retro, in some contexts, can be cool.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?

  • By modeling current styles in the use of  scientific terminology, we teach an important lesson when learning any language—how it's actually used out there on the streets.
  • Consider taking a moment every once in a while to explain why the eponym your are using—or avoiding—is widely used.  Or why it's different than what they may be reading or hearing elsewhere. This may make them more likely to listen (and think) more carefully in their professional communications.
  • Consider using this information to explain why you want your students to know more than one alternate term—you are preparing them to be nimble in their clinical experiences and professional reading.
  • Many students aren't competent in using different possessive forms and perhaps don't even know what an eponym is.  Perhaps we can help them gain such competence.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Human Microbial System

A recent article in The Scientist once again reminds us of the ongoing explosion in the scientific understanding of the human microbial system.  In a few short years, this area of exploration has moved to the forefront of medical and basic science research in human biology.

I think it's becoming clear that the most useful way to think of human body function is to recognize that an "organism" is really a sort of "habitat."  And like any habitat, it functions best when all the inhabitants are within a limited range of balanced relationships.

Who are the inhabitants?  Besides our own cells?  Well, one could think of mitochondria and cilia and other organelles as symbiotic internal inhabitants of our cells.  They're not that literally, of course, but I think its a useful metaphor for understanding the human body.  Then there are the many microbes and animals that cover our internal and external surfaces, burrow into some of our pores and glands, and inhabit our body fluids.

I call the balanced functional relationship among the various microbomes of the body and our own tissues the human microbial system.  And I am certain that it won't be long before we will be discussing this system alongside the major organ systems of the body.  That is if we truly want to understand how the body really works.

The article in The Scientist I mention is a great summary of some of the major roles that the human microbial system plays in the human body—and a good survey of some of the areas of the body where the human-microbial functional relationships play out.  See the link to the article below.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?

  • Why not introduce the concept of the human microbial system at the beginning of our A&P course, when we set the stage by explain how scientists understand the body and its functions as an integrated system of different parts?
  • We can mention the different microbiomes of the body when we explore each organ system where they play an important role—which is pretty much all of them!
  • Consider discussing what happens to normal human function when microbiomes get out of balance.  For example, in the gut a microbial imbalance can lead to ulcers, diarrhea, and other dysfunctions.  On the skin a pathogenic microbe may become dominant and cause a rash.
  • Promote a discussion of what kinds of wellness strategies might be employed to prevent microbial imbalances.
  • Our students can leave our A&P course with an up-to-date understanding of human biology that will help them understand new clinical concepts and treatment strategies.

Want to Know More?

The Body’s Ecosystem

  • By The Scientist Staff.  The Scientist. August 1, 2014
  • Plain-English article (cited above) on how research on the human microbiome is booming, and scientists have moved from simply taking stock of gut flora to understanding the influence of microbes throughout the body.

Articles from The A&P Professor

Moving pictures of the human microbiome

  • J Gregory Caporaso et al. Genome Biology 2011, 12:R50  doi:10.1186/gb-2011-12-5-r50
  • Open-access journal article that includes FREE videos that show how dynamic the human microbial system is

Human Microbiome Project

The Microbiome and Disease

  • List of diseases associated with microbiome imbalances from Genetic Science Learning Center


  • Radio stories from National Public Radio on human microbiomes and their role in health and disease.  The growing number of these stories tells us something as A&P teachers: maybe we better be covering this!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Start A&P 1 with a Comprehensive Exam. Really.

A while back, I recommended starting the second semester of A&P 2 with an exam. In that article, I stated that it's a good opportunity to get everyone started on the right track—and on the same track—before jumping right back into it.

If you think about it, even the first semester of A&P is "jumping back into it."  That is, if we assume that our students have had some learning in biology already.  Don't we want them to already know at least a little bit about:
  • basic chemistry (like what an atom is)
  • cell biology (at least what a cell is and perhaps a few organelles)
  • scientific terminology (like what roots, prefixes, and suffixes are)
  • genetics (what a gene is, what DNA stands for, basic inheritance)
  • metric system (at least the basics)
  • main organs of the body (like what a muscle or stomach is)
Then why not start them off with an open-book online or take-home exam covering these topics?  Or more topics?  Or fewer?

By starting off with a low-pressure "open" exam, we accomplish several goals:

  • Students learn how we will be testing them.  
    • They'll become comfortable with the formats we use for test items, how our LMS quizzes work, how to fill out an exam book (or scan sheet or test paper), our personal quirks in testing, the depth and breadth of our assessments, and more.

  • They review-refresh-solidify their prior learning.  
    • The "review exam" is a learning experience in and of itself, making sure that students fill in any gaps that may have occurred since they last encountered these concepts—even if they finished their last bio course only a few weeks ago.

  • Solves the "we don't have a prerequisite for A&P" problem.  
    • Well, it doesn't completely solve it.  But it does put quite a dent in it.

  • Allows students to work at their own pace to catch up.
    • Some students will breeze through their review.  Others will wonder how they missed (or forgot) all these concepts.  Still others have challenges in learning, reading, remembering, using English, and more.  This will help even out the playing field, at least at the start of the game.

  • You won't have to wonder what they've learned before reaching you.
    • The review will ensure that they know the concepts you want them to know before they begin.  And which terminology you'll using.

  • Saves you time in your course.
    • By not having to stop and review basic concepts when your students stumble, you have more class time for learning activities.

  • Students will have less of that oppressive, overwhelming feeling of stress a few weeks into A&P.
    • Many students, especially returning learners, feel like they are drowning because of the pace and sheer volume of information in their A&P course.  But a review exam can get a lot of that "you should already know this"— "I should perhaps, but I don't"—stress out of the way from the get-go.

  • Gives students confidence as they face their new challenges in your course.
    • This one cannot be overstated.  Much of our success in learning comes from how confident we are in our preparedness and our abilities.  A review exam can be a positive learning experience that establishes a good attitude for learning from the beginning. And it won't be false confidence—they really will know the foundational concepts they need for success in A&P!

Want to Know More?

Start A&P 2 with a Final Exam

  • Kevin Patton. The A&P Professor.   21 Jan 2013
  • My previous article on using the first exam in the second semester of A&P to review, refresh, and solidify concepts from A&P 1.

Teaching as Testing
  • Kevin Patton. The Electronic Professor 27 Feb 2009
  • Article outlining my use of randomized online testing as a mechanism of needed practice.  Includes links to a full video presentation.

Practice. Practice. Practice.
  • Kevin Patton. Lion Tamers Guide to Teaching 3 Dec 2010
  • Article on the role of practice in teaching and learning, using the analogy of taming lions.
Image credit: kelvinsong

Monday, August 4, 2014

Forensic Anthropologist Clyde Snow Passes

I just learned that the renowned forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow passed away this past May at the age of 86.

Famous for identifying the remains of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele and victims of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, Snow was one of a generation of pioneers who sparked the current popular interest in forensic sciences.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?  Some of stories of his achievements (see links below) can help spark interest in studying the human skeleton and other systems.  And some of his familiar quotes are worth using in the lab or classroom:

  • "There are 206 bones and 32 teeth in the human body, and each has a story to tell."
  • "Bones can be puzzles, but they never lie, and they don't smell bad."
  • "The ground is like a beautiful woman—if you treat her gently, she'll tell you all her secrets."
  • "If you can make people feel they're not going to get away with it—that's all we're asking." (regarding using forensic science to solve crimes)

Want to know more?

Clyde Snow, forensic anthropologist who helped ID victims of John Wayne Gacy, dies at 86
  • M. Weil Washington Post May 18, 2014
  • Article summarizing Snow's work, including several stories that could be used in an A&P class discussion.

Science Detectives: The Masters Case
  • Discovery Channel January 22, 1997
  • Reenactment of forensic fieldwork in a killing that occurred decades before the victim's bones were discovered.

Image credit: Toony