Ask A Scientist

What do you have to dissect to become a doctor or pediatrician?  

Asked by: Sienna Merrill
School: East Middle School, Binghamton
Grade: 8
Teacher: Mrs. Browne
Hobbies/Interests: Dance, reading, listening to music and writing.
Career Interest: Nurse practitioner or pediatrician.

Answer from Douglas W. Green, EdD

Adjunct Lecturer, Binghamton University

Other: Former principal at Woodrow Wilson Elementary in Binghamton, NY
Research area: Leadership, Learning Theory and Social Media
Interests/hobbies: Playing my banjo, biking, golf and reading
Family: Daughter Lena, age 29, who works for the Teen Nickelodeon channel in Times Square, New York City  

On your way to a career in medicine, you will no doubt dissect a wide variety of things. Dissections are a great way to learn how living things are put together. While you can learn a lot from diagrams and photographs, there is no substitute for what you can learn as you carefully pry things apart.

Most programs start with plants. Look for the reproductive parts that allow a plant to make seeds that can make more plants. In addition to a sharp knife or scalpel, you should use pins to hold your subject down and a magnifying glass to get a better look.

After plants it's on to simple animals. The earthworm with its five hearts and grasshoppers are a good place to start. Schools use preserved specimens that are fairly stiff and easier to work with. Next you might try a frog that has many internal organs similar to ours. Unborn or fetal pigs might be next as their internal anatomy is even more similar to humans. 

Another popular dissection features owl pellets. They contain the undigested parts of rodents that owls eat and regurgitate. You can dissect them to find things like bones and teeth.

Schools also get animal parts that would otherwise be discarded. Cow eyes are popular. They are larger than human eyes and work the same way. Cow hearts are also useful for seeing how our hearts work. Teachers in elementary schools often demonstrate dissections of parts or whole preserved animals.

During pre medical work in college, you can count on doing human dissections. You can observe operations on living people in person or via television. You can also observe or assist with autopsies. This is where a doctor dissects a recently deceased human in order to determine the cause of death. This is done when the cause is mysterious or the result of foul play.

Finally, medical students will most likely dissect dead humans who donated their bodies to science while they were alive. These bodies are called cadavers and serve as vital learning resources for medical students. These dissections are slow and detailed, and can take months, as it is important to maximize the learning.

Unfortunately, some schools have substituted real dissections with computer programs due to complaints about sacrificing animals and to save money. Here is a link if you want to purchase specimens for home dissections:

Last Updated: 3/1/17