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Q&A with Dr. Geoffrey Noel

​Rethinking Anatomy: Introducing New Chief Dr. Geoffroy Noel 

As incoming Chief of Anatomy at UC San Diego, Geoffroy Noel, PhD, is inheriting a unique division. Typically, anatomy instruction is embedded within the basic sciences, but at UC San Diego the division is part of our clinically focused Department of Surgery – a key factor in recruiting Dr. Noel from McGill University. Here we speak to Dr. Noel about his approach to leadership transition, his research interests  and his plans for the future of Anatomy at UCSD. 

Q: Your arrival marks a departure from 30 years of leadership by former Division Chief Dr. Mark Whitehead. How would you say anatomy instruction has changed in the past 30 years, and what effect will your approach to leadership have on instruction going forward? 

A: Dr. Whitehead did a fantastic job leading the Division to have anatomy integrated in the system-based curriculum and also include drawing exercises as a way to help students build observation skills. Anatomy is more than ever being revived through its interconnection with medical imaging. The next step, taking over for Dr. Whitehead, will be to integrate those two disciplines. 

Humanities are also being reintroduced in anatomy education. Working in the laboratory requires students to navigate between empathy and clinical detachment. We owe it to students to educate them in the various ethical, societal and legal ramifications of working with human material. We also need to guide them in the appreciation of human diversity and the reflection of the meaning of life and death, through discussions, reflections, meditation and artistic expression. Bringing all those disciplines together in the anatomy laboratory will define my new role. 

Q: What are some of the current challenges with regard to anatomy instruction and how do you intend to address them in your new role?

A: Integration of new technologies to harvest the potential of body donors in conjunction with hands-on traditional dissections is an always moving target. Being a leader in this quest is of prime importance. Refreshing the basic understanding of anatomy during clerkship, with a more applied and clinical lens through a new senior elective, entitled "Applied Radiologic and Surgical Anatomy," will help students transition to post-graduate surgical and radiology training. 

Being an educator requires one to stay tuned to new evidence of best practices and play a major role in generating that evidence. Anatomy education needs to be a player in medical education research with the joint efforts of students. Creating a teaching post-doctoral fellowship with a medical education research portfolio could harvest the potential of the Center for the Future of Surgery and advance the field for both UGME and PGME.

Q: What are your research interests? 

A: My two pillars of research in medical education can be described as follows:

Understanding how virtual needles in AR or high-fidelity 3D replicates can be used in step-by-step training of medical competencies and how users adapt to those technologies. Wearable devices such as EDA, HRM, pupil/eye trackers and EEG can be used to understand the cognitive and emotional milestones of the trainees and ultimately allow for a more "personalized" learning experience. 

Understanding how trainees perceived their experience with body donation and how their interaction with body donors can help them build new skills to connect with future patients. Empathy of students can be measured before and after being exposed to various levels of information about the body donors. Self-expression of the body donors and personal letters from the donors or their family members can impact how students react and get educated to better appreciate the diversity as it applies to health. 

Q: What plans do you have going forward for the UC San Diego Cadaver Lab and for the Body Donation Program? 

A: We plan to complement the work on body donors with new technologies such as Augmented Reality to overlay medical images on the bodies or prepare specific approaches with 3D printed replicates of the body donors. I'd also like to incorporate the social sciences in the study of anatomy with meditation and open discussion on human connections and the meaning of life and death. As for Anatomical Services, UCSD's  program is one of the largest in the country and has been very successful in implementing safeguards and mechanisms to protect our donors or their families. Channels to allow for communications between the donors, their families and the students could be envisioned to harvest the power of the donors and their families on the decision to donate their bodies. Donors often expressed interest to write their reflection for the students to understand their journeys. 

Similarly, electronic health records to supplement the use of the donations could be considered. This new information would bring new dimensions and meaning to the learning experience of our trainees. Optimization of the use of the donors between educators and researchers would also greatly benefit our community. 

Q: In your experience so far, what are the differences and similarities between the Departments of Surgery at McGill University and UC San Diego? 

A: The Division of Anatomy has a special home at UCSD, being part of the Department of Surgery. I previously led the Division of Anatomical Sciences at McGill University, which is under the umbrella of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. I can only be appreciative of this design. Working alongside clinicians, who not only understand the importance of anatomy but can also investigate new venues for anatomy to be utilized, helps in maintaining the academic strength of anatomy. 

In recent years, anatomy has led the other medical science disciplines and has produced a large body of scholarly work in the field of medical education. McGill Institute of Health Sciences Education has been a close ally in elevating the role of anatomist in the field of medical education. Creating an Academy of Medical Educators, here at UCSD, could bring different disciplines together and bring new focus and appreciation of medical education scholarship. The UC Health System is an outstanding and visionary academic center, always looking forward to the future. Located within a city that offers new technologies as a playground, I can easily see how this exciting working environment can help my curiosity for technologies grow, while still embracing my European heritage and appreciation for both basic and social sciences. 

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