On the second day of the Advanced Human Dissection class, students were gathered in small groups around the tables in the university’s cadaver lab.

The students talked amongst themselves as they worked, but the tone was different than one might expect in a room that is a hub of activity.

“The cadaver is our first patient,” said Rebekah Sweyko, a senior in the advanced medical school acceptance program who will continue her medical studies at KCU next year. “We treat them with the utmost respect, as you would a live patient in the hospital.”

Sweyko said the lab was one of the deciding factors when she chose to attend Missouri Southern.

“It’s probably one of the best and most applicable resources I could have going into medical school,” she said. “The fact that (Missouri Southern) has it is one of the reasons I wanted to come here.”

This fall marked the 10th anniversary of the founding of the lab, which is one of the most unique resources for undergraduate students at MSSU.

The lab opened in 2011, but it had been a few years in the making.

“Before we had the cadaver lab, we used one lab in Reynolds for all of the anatomy classes, and we didn’t have human dissection,” said Dr. Crystal Lemmons, professor of biology and environmental health. “It was way overutilized, with no room to spare.”

With the opening of the Julio León Health Sciences Center in 2010, the Dental Hygiene program moved there from their former home in the Ummel Technology Building.

“They had all that wonderful space in Ummel, and (former faculty members) Dr. Jim Jackson and Dr. Vickie Roettger looked into seeing if we could utilize it,” Lemmons said. “Having a cadaver lab was something we always wanted to do, but it seemed out of reach because we didn’t have the facilities.”

The initial lab featured an observation gallery, where students could watch as faculty members taught and utilized one of two cadavers. The creation of an advanced dissection course created a more immersive experience for students, while an expansion in 2018 doubled the amount of available space.

Today, the lab houses eight cadavers – with dedicated spaces for students to work on dissection and study prosected bodies. It has allowed students to conduct anatomical research, and present their findings at national and international conferences.

But it’s more than just a resource for students to learn about anatomy, said Dr. Alla Barry, associate professor of biology and director of the lab.

“It’s about the ability to see things, analyze findings and put them together to create a diagnosis,” she said. “It’s like a detective examining footprints to find the guy who did it. Students like this approach because it makes them think, not just memorize.

“It also helps them develop their communication skills, teamwork and professionalism. We also see an increase in empathy and a desire to continue in the (medical) profession.”

Students receive only basic information about the whole-body donors they work with in class. Some groups, upon completion of their work, will even receive letters written by donors prior to their death.

“Sometimes the letters are typed, sometimes hand-written,” Barry said. “It’s very emotional.”

Jordan Banker, who graduated from MSSU in May with a degree in biology, is now a student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She said her experience working in the cadaver lab helped to prepare her for medical school.

“I took the regular anatomy class, (served as a teacher’s assistant) for anatomy and took the dissection class,” she said. “You see a lot of variation. No two cadavers are the same. Seeing everything is so valuable. You could learn a lot about anatomy from textbooks, but you lose a lot of the context.

“It’s an emotional experience. We have kind of a weird thing about death. It’s sacred. But you have to remember that this is what the donors wanted … for students to learn from them. It’s really important to have that in mind, that this is the best way to honor them.”