Indiana State University Newsroom

Lab provides new experiences for physician assistant students

February 23, 2011

After working as a personal trainer and a firefighter, Mike Kaforke wants to do more to help people.

The Carmel, Ind., resident already knows plenty about the human body and how it works after completing a bachelor's degree in kinesiology from California State University at Fullerton. But before he can practice medicine, he must learn anatomy in even greater detail.

A new gross anatomy lab in Indiana State University's College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services is helping Kaforke and 29 other graduate students do just that. The students were selected to be part of the first class in Indiana State's new masters of physician assistant studies program, the first of its kind at public university in the state.

Three times a week, the students divide into teams and gather around five of the lab's eight cadavers. Using an atlas of the human body as a guide, and under the hands-on direction of their professor, the students dissect the bodies, identifying muscles, tissue and organs.

When he picked up a scalpel to begin his first dissection in just the third week of classes, Kaforke felt nervous. That feeling quickly passed.

"I've never really done any big dissections besides high school, with frogs and stuff," he said. "It's unbelievable. Now that I do it, it's awesome because you're learning so much and then getting to see hands on and actually get in there and feel it and see it - I can't explain it. I love it. It's awesome."

David Dominguese, assistant professor of anatomy and the lab's director, offered tips to the students - many of whom, like Kaforke, have prior service in health care but found themselves in awe of their assigned tasks.

"So remember, most of those muscles and the things that you have to identify, they're right next to one another, they're right on top of one another and it's hard to differentiate sometimes what you're looking at," Dominguese advised the students as they began to cut through layers of muscle.

"The muscles are a lot harder than I thought they would be and are actually a lot thinner," Kaforke said. "I thought the muscles would be a lot thicker. Being able to identify the nerves and some of the arteries I thought would be harder but he brings them out and it's pretty well defined. With our cadaver being bigger I think it's easier to identify the muscles."

When students begin dissecting, they know nothing about the people who donated their bodies for education and research. But the cadaver assigned to Kaforke's team of students is that of a burly, muscular man, leading the students to speculate that he worked in a physically demanding career. By the end of the semester, the students will learn the cause of death and other relevant information for each body.

Students approach their lab tasks with the utmost respect for the cadavers and their families.

"It's amazing how these people have donated their bodies to help educate me," said Meghan Cronin of Naperville, Ill. "They don't give us any prior history or anything, but you're definitely keeping in mind that individual while you're doing it. You have to be very respectful."

The lab's cadavers come from an official willed body program administered by the Indiana University School of Medicine, Dominguese said. Many people choose to donate their bodies for research and education, but families can also choose to donate a loved one's body even if the deceased is not in a willed body program, he said.

"We're quite excited that we are able to have human cadavers. I'm also excited about the lab, the university and our department," said Dominguese, who joined the Indiana State faculty this year from Ohio University. "We believe it's a state of the art gross anatomy laboratory. The laboratory will serve for many different classes for the department."

Cronin, who completed a bachelor's degree in biology at Indiana University-Bloomington in 2010, said it was the new facilities that attracted her to Indiana State's physician assistant studies program.

"They told us about the anatomy lab during the interview process and everything they told us has ended up as they said. It's amazing," she said.

The cadaver lab is housed in the department of applied medicine and rehabilitation. While dissecting will be limited to graduate students in the physician assistant studies and doctor of physical therapy programs, students in other ISU nursing and allied health programs will have access to the lab for anatomy lessons.

Kaforke said he is "super impressed with ISU's program. We've got a great lab. Dr. Dominguese is a very good instructor. He helps bring it all together for students."

The ISU lab offers many features not commonly found in gross anatomy labs. Exterior windows allow natural light into the third-floor lab, which also includes overhead surgery lamps. The lab also boasts a multi-media video monitoring and recording system so students can see in real time what others are doing and review their own dissections later.

Dominguese was attracted to Indiana State because of its commitment to offering new programs to address the nation's health care shortages. Students such as Cronin say their career goals are consistent with the university's mission.

"One of the big things that they stress in this program is rural medicine or helping in areas of underserved people," she said. "Working in either rural areas or an urban setting where people don't have a lot of access to medical facilities would be amazing. I think it's really important to hit the areas that really need it."

The master's program in physician assistant studies is the second of three new ISU programs approved last year by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. The others are a doctor of nursing practice and a doctor of physical therapy. Plans are in the works to seek state approval this year for four additional programs.

Programs still in development include an accelerated nursing degree for persons who already have a baccalaureate in another degree, a master's of social work, a master's degree in occupational therapy and a Ph.D. in health sciences.

Video: Watch a video feature about the gross anatomy lab on YouTube at or on Facebook at!/IndianaState

Photos: - Students in Indiana State University's new master's program in physician assistant studies learn about human anatomy from the best possible source - actual human bodies - in the College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services' new gross anatomy lab. (ISU/Tony Campbell) - David Dominguese, assistant professor of anatomy, guides Indiana State University master's students in the dissection of cadavers as part of their curriculum in the College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services' new physician assistant studies program. (ISU/Tony Campbell) - Mike Kaforke, a student in Indiana State University's new master's of physician assistant studies program, examines x-rays taken of a cadaver in the College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services' new gross anatomy lab. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Contact: David Dominguese, assistant professor of anatomy, department of applied medicine and rehabilitation, College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services, Indiana State University, 812-237-3632 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or