Itzhak Fischer, PhD
Interview by Nancy West
As chair of the Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy, Itzhak Fischer, PhD, oversees one of the largest and most renowned spinal cord research programs in the country. His NIH-supported research focuses on the development of cellular and molecular strategies to promote the regeneration and recovery of function in the injured spinal cord. Yet, another aspect of his work is very important to him: He supports a number of community outreach programs, including a summer Neuroscience Camp, Medical Student for a Day for high-schoolers, an anatomy course for advanced art students, and a unique group of summer remediation courses for medical students.
WHAT WAS YOUR GOAL in starting community outreach programs?
Over the years, we have developed many teaching resources. In addition to procuring cadavers for our gross anatomy lab, we have produced online videos of the labs, and almost all of our histology slides have been scanned. We decided to use some of these resources to provide courses for high school students, art students and medical students outside of Drexel College of Medicine as a community service and to attract students to our program. In particular, we wanted to reach out to students in lower socioeconomic areas to give them exposure to medical science and educational opportunities that they might not otherwise have.
HOW DOES NEUROSCIENCE CAMP benefit students and the College?
Current high school juniors and sophomores who demonstrate a strong interest in neuroscience topics and research can apply for this two-week summer camp, which involves a mix of lectures and participation in a lab project. We receive about 50 applications each year, and we invite 15 students to participate. Graduate students at the College act as mentors in the lab, so it is good experience for them as well as for the high school students, who see firsthand how scientific experiments are conducted. Students break into smaller groups for lab work.
At the end of the two weeks, each group gives a presentation of their experimental findings. Often, some of the high school students later apply to the College as medical students. This program was developed in 2013 by Jed Shumsky, PhD, research associate professor in our department.
WHAT DO ART STUDENTS learn here?
Since 2009, our department has offered the course Artistic Anatomy, in collaboration with the Fleisher Art Memorial. Taught by Michael Grimaldi of the New York Academy of Art, with support from Bruce Hirsch, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy, and Theresa Connors, an instructor in the department, the course provides a unique experience for advanced graduate art students. It is based on the Renaissance tradition, emulating Leonardo da Vinci; art students spend a full day each week in the anatomy lab, working from cadavers, for 15 weeks.
The art students study the structure of the body and how it relates to and controls function and appearance, and the application of this knowledge in their own art work. It benefits our medical students, who stay in the lab after their dissection work to communicate with the art students and learn how the art students react. It is a very emotional experience for all of them, emphasizing the relationship between science, and art and the humanities. As far as we know, this is the only such program for art students nationwide. WHYY created an excellent video, "The Gross Lab," based on interviews with participants (whyy.org/segments/the-gross-lab-4/).
WHAT LED TO THE Medical Student for a Day program?
This community service program evolved out of a request in 2004 from an AP biology teacher in the Philadelphia School District to bring her students to the gross anatomy lab for a field trip. Since then, the program has grown to include over 300 high school students each year from more than 15 schools in the greater Philadelphia region, many in lower socioeconomic areas. The students have the opportunity to interact with medical students, who act as mentors in the gross anatomy lab, as well as graduate students and faculty. We believe that investing early in these students’ education will have a greater impact on their futures. Over the years, many who have participated in the program have applied to become medical students at the College.
WHO CAN TAKE THE summer remediation courses?
We developed web-based summer remediation courses for medical students nationwide who received a failing grade during their initial course in medical neuroscience, histology, embryology or gross anatomy. These courses, now in their tenth year, are still the only ones in the country offered online.