University of Western Ontario: New approach to anatomy challenges antiquated terms, adopts inclusive lens

During the past year, anatomy and cell biology professor Charys Martin has engaged in many discussions around equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization (EDI-D). She has also seen peers in the anatomy community struggle with the outdated use of gender binary terms and colonial labels.

Each instance provoked the same reaction.

“I kept asking myself, ‘What can I do in my world?’” she said.

Her answer came when Western’s Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) put out a call for its next cohort of teaching fellows to provide educational leadership and learning through innovative projects.

Martin successfully submitted a proposal to develop inclusive medical terminology and anatomical resources. Her project, Open Access Library of Inclusive Anatomical Science Learning Resources, will incorporate EDI-D principles, and is one of four faculty-specific initiatives selected as part of the 2022 CTL teaching fellows cohort.

Aisha Haque, CTL director, sees a consistent theme across this year’s projects.

“They’re all about breaking down barriers and forging connections,” she said. “When I think about the impact these projects will have on our students, it’s very powerful. They’ll be connecting to their communities, be empowered with multiple career pathways and have the ability and courage to disrupt the cycles of inequity they see around them.

“I’m so inspired by the dedication and passion they bring to Western and the contributions they’re going to make within the changing landscape of higher education.”

Easing out eponyms

One area Martin will focus on is the use of eponyms – names for anatomical structures based on the European men who claimed to have discovered them first.

“Eponyms are rife in our terminology,” she said. “I don’t even know the more accurate terms for certain structures because this is how we were taught.”

One common example is the fallopian tube.

“It’s named after a man called Gabriele Falloppio, an Italian anatomist,” Martin said. “Luckily, he doesn’t have any problematic history associated with him, but a lot of them do.”

And, from a practical standpoint, eponyms’ lack of accuracy hamper student learning.

“We’re constantly teaching them two terms for things,” she said. “Fallopian tube gives no information where this structure is located, versus the ‘uterine tube,’ the actual descriptive and anatomical term. It tells us exactly where it is, attached to the uterus.”

Martin won’t be removing eponyms completely but plans to “minimize the focus.” Such has been her practice for a while now, teaching ‘uterine tube’ as the primary term followed by ‘fallopian’ in small parenthesis.

Patient first

Martin’s work will ensure language is gender-inclusive by focusing on anatomy-based terms, which emphasize structures independent from a person’s sex or gender.

First, she plans to remove ‘male’ and ‘female’ from her teaching materials.

“I’m going to use the anatomical-focused terminology instead,” Martin said, noting there is no standardized terminology accepted by all within the LGBTQ2S+ community.

“That’s why, first and foremost, it’s ‘patient first,’” she said. “How the patient wants to refer to their body parts is the most important aspect of this. The physician needs to use that terminology and to first understand why.”

To aid that understanding, Martin is developing teaching materials and learning sessions to provide students with the reasoning behind moving away from using eponyms and gender binary descriptors. She’ll also create professional development opportunities to provide all faculty within the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry with the same knowledge and insight.

An open-access, diverse and accessible library will allow the resources to be used beyond Schulich and Western.

Student consultants

To ensure voices of underrepresented groups and individuals with lived experiences are heard, Martin plans to collaborate with student consultants.

“Students offer diverse perspectives and continue to be the driving force for EDI-D in medicine and in our curriculum,” Martin said. “They call us out when we need to be called out. We need that, because there’s a lot of learning and unlearning going on for all of us.”

Working within her own area first, Martin hopes starting small will generate big outcomes. “I hope it sparks a flame within me and among the physicians I teach with collaboratively, so they’ll take it into their courses in dentistry, physiotherapy, kinesiology and it spirals across and outside of medicine,” she said.

In addition to Martin, the three other 2022 teaching fellows and their projects include:

Lauren Briens (Faculty of Engineering)

Impact of Active Learning on Student Enrolment, Engagement and Career Pathways in Chemical Engineering

Briens’ project involves a complete redesign of a core course in chemical engineering, shifting the focus from the traditional application of oil and gas industry principles to more modernized and varied careers such as health care and the food industry, which more accurately reflect the current industry landscape.

Aaron Hodgson (Faculty of Music)

Rethinking Applied Music Instruction

Hodgson will create novel, discipline-specific opportunities for collaboration, knowledge exchange, and professional development for colleagues teaching the applied music instruction course. To build community and capacity for teaching and learning, he’ll investigate the innovative teaching practices used within the department and broader field, and share those methods with instructors through retreats, workshops, and classroom observations.

David Sandomierski (Faculty of Law)

Co-Teaching in Law Schools

Sandomierski’s project involves developing three distinct approaches to collaborative teaching in law, each prioritizing a key thematic objective of legal education. It includes collaborating with practitioners to reinforce and integrate theory and practice, working with a series of co-instructors to expose students to diverse models of legal professionalism, and partnering with an instructor from a different discipline to design and teach all aspects of a course.