When you want to teach anatomy to eager medical students, who better to do it than bone experts? At the Keck School of Medicine of USC, though, these instructors are connoisseurs of really old bones.
Mikel Snow, chair of the Keck School’s Department of Cell & Neurobiology, hired paleontologists Michael Habib and Biren Patel in 2012 to help him teach Human Gross Anatomy, a class where medical students dissect a human cadaver. Habib and Patel represent part of a growing trend at medical schools: picking anatomy faculty from top paleontology programs. But there’s a second benefit to USC besides strong anatomy teaching: creating an even deeper paleontology bench. USC recently collaborated with researchers at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on several significant discoveries, including Habib’s work on deciphering the flying style of the four-winged Microraptor gui.
Patel specializes in primate fossils, and Habib studies ancient vertebrates including dinosaurs. Paleontologist Gene Albrecht also serves on the five-to seven-member Human Gross Anatomy team, which supervises about 200 students working with about 30 cadavers. One of the strengths of paleontologists is that they’re experts on the anatomy of a whole body, rather than specializing in one area of it—not to mention that their anatomical expertise draws from all the Earth’s animals across the ages, not just those that are currently on the planet.
As a paleontologist, Habib says, his domain includes a huge animal kingdom that spans time. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all of the species that have ever existed are currently extinct.”