Posts Tagged 'teaching'

Gay Science News

I don’t know if you occupy yourself with the scientific press, but there’s been big news in the last couple weeks in homosexuality research. There was a new “gay brain” study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) that looked at differences in primitive brain structures that are fixed after birth showing that these structures in gay men resembled the same structures in straight women. Similarly, these structures in gay women resembled straight men. For those of you who love neuroanatomy, Hetero Male cerebral hemispheres tend to be lateralized or larger on the right side, mostly due to increased frontal and temporal lobes. Women’s cerebral hemispheres tend to be more similar on both sides. The Homo Male cerebral hemispheres tend to be the same size on each side, more like straight women’s. The opposite is true for gay women. More striking were changes in connectivity between the amygdala (reactions to external stimuli) and subcallosum and anterior cingulate (regulation of mood and anxiety-linked processes). The authors make a supposition that this could explain the increased prevalence in mood disorders amongst women and the increased depression and suicide rate among gay men. I think both statements are questionable because frankly there are a lot of external factors for both women and gay men that profoundly influence mental health. The authors also show that connections between the sensorimotor cortex and striatum are more robust in Hetero men and Homo women. These connections are more involved with attending to the external environment via fight or flight responses. All interesting stuff indeed.

This week, a paper in PLoS One (Public Library of Sciences) did some crazy genetics studies that I can’t even begin to fully understand, but their conclusions were pretty interesting. The authors were puzzled by the notion of a genetic source of homosexuality because in the simplest sense, if homosexuality is genetic and most homosexuals don’t reproduce, homosexuality should become extinct in the population. They show that homosexuality is equally present in cultures throughout the world and stable in incidence through recent history, indicating that a downslide in homosexuality prevalence or homosexual extinction is probably not happening. Then they use the theory of sexually antagonistic selection (the genes of one sex favor the other sex somehow) to come up with the hypothesis that homosexual men would have female relatives who are more fecund, or reproductively active. The theory being that some of the same genes involved in reproductive potential in women are somehow linked to homosexuality in men within the same maternal blood line.  They relate this then to their empirical studies which showed asymmetries in the pedigrees of families with gay men showing that the maternal female relatives (maternal aunts and cousins for example) of gay men do in fact have statistically more children. Interesting stuff as well. So now it’s a matter of doing the genetic linkage studies to identify the genes involved.

All of this research is interesting to me as a gay scientist. I always try to read the introductions and discussions of these papers carefully because the meaning and intent behind this research is perhaps more important than the research data itself. Most of the time, these studies are interpreted to say, “See I told you, being gay is not a lifestyle choice.” However, there are a lot of powerful people out there who would love to see these biological explanations for homosexuality turn into medical solutions to cure homosexuality. Check this quote from Rev. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use.” It’s interesting and scary how the position of an anti-gay individual can shift so smoothly from “homosexuality is a choice” to “if it’s not a choice, then let’s fix it with medicine.” And believe you me, if these movers and shakers find ways to fund this sort of gay cure medicine (however far-off and ridiculous it may seem right now), people will want it and use it. Millions of people in China already selectively abort female fetuses to make sure they have a male baby.

All of this comes full circle for me every semester when I teach the pelvis in anatomy. The main message of the pelvis in my class is “having babies is magic, let’s see how much we can learn about how to make, grow and deliver a baby just by studying the anatomy.” It’s really fun, the students seem to absolutely love it, and we are able to talk through all of the anatomy of the male and female by linking it into one cohesive story . I’ve given a lot of thought to whether my approach is too hetero-centric, but you know, the story just isn’t that different for me or any other gay person. The parts all work the same, you just put them in different places. I could talk about gay sexual health issues, but that just goes so far outside the realm of anatomy. Maybe it would be more appropriate for an undergraduate anatomy/physiology class. I feel that my role in doing service to the gay community through my teaching is just being my big bad gay self in the classroom, so my students can see that gay people can be scientists and teachers (and really good ones at that) because they might not get the chance to meet many out role models in their medical education.


Me and my Nervous System

It’s official. The stressful part of my summer has begun. Today was my first lecture in the summer anatomy class. I had to discuss every bone, joint, movement, muscle, artery and nerve in the upper limb. I can’t believe I was able to get through it in an hour and a half. I gave pretty much the same lecture last year, so I really had no reason to be concerned about it, but me being me, naturally I was falling apart and nauseous with anxiety in the hour leading up to it.

I get anxiety about everything, which most people would probably be surprised to know. I try to maintain the cool and calm demeanor of a true Gen-X’er who is so disillusioned with life, authority and ambition, that he just can’t be made to care about anything. The truth is I’m probably much more a member of the Millennial generation, in constant worry about maintaining the status quo and trying to please everyone all at once. The fact of my actual age would put me in a hazy area between GenX and Millennial, so maybe both are true. I am certainly disillusioned by authority and I generally try to avoid rules whenever possible (classic GenX features), but I also love group work and am an overachiever (only on paper, not in my heart – why do I feel I have to apologize for doing good work?).

I’ve learned to manage my nerves in the days leading up to whatever terror-inducing event is on the agenda by pretending to not think about it and keep busy with other things. I direct your attention to Exhibit A: my manic house cleaning episode yesterday – a classic mind-diverting tool. This strategy inevitably breaks down within the hour prior to said terror-inducing event and out comes the crazy stomach. I used to curb this by not eating for a day leading up to the event, but now I have acid-related stomach disease so that’s just not an option. I’ve gotten much better in the last few months about eating breakfast every day and staying away from Bloomin’ Onions and any wing sauce higher than Honey BBQ on the Buffalo Wild Wings “levels of hell ” scale. For some unthinkable reason, I had nachos from the hospital today for lunch, further complicating matters. Granted, I got no salsa and only had chicken and cheese on them, but seriously, that cheese product is closer to vegetable oil than cheese.

Getting back to anatomy, I think it’s fascinating how my anxious brain makes my stomach way too acidic and makes digestion happen either way too fast or not at all. The nervous system of the gut is pretty insane. There’s just as many nerves in the gut as there are everywhere else in your body, leading some people to call it “the second brain” or “second nervous system.” In fact, the gut nervous system can act on its own entirely on reflexes without any input from the brain. Just talk to a quadriplegic, once they get the food in their belly, the GI tract just takes over. The fact is though, there are many connections from the brain to the gut nerves that get activated when you smell or see food, making you feel more hungry. I will spare you the lecture on the spinal levels of the Splanchnic nerves and their target tissues. Those connections are all part of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, or the good old “fight or flight” system. So naturally when I start to irrationally believe that I will suddenly forget how to teach my brain sends my GI tract into utter chaos. Perhaps I should see about severing those connections from brain to gut. On second thought, I’d probably end up paralyzed, so maybe not.

I’ve thought a lot about this and while my nervousness is one of my least favorite personality traits (and one that I hide very well), I’m pretty sure it’s one of the main reasons that I am a good teacher. Very rarely does a student ask a question that I haven’t already anticipated at 3 in the morning. I practice all of my blackboard drawings on my office whiteboard several times to make sure I don’t forget any important details. My goal is that my anxiety and terror can eventually give way to a more sensible sense of preparation sans nausea. Of course last night on “The Next Food Network Star” Bobby Flay ruined my dreams by telling me that he still gets nervous every time he’s in front of the camera. God damn it. BTW, two thumbs down to the judges for sending stand-up comedian Cory Kahaney packing. I was enchanted by her quizzical mix of Mediterranean cuisine and non-stop laughs.

Anyway, the lecture was a success by my own estimation. Most of the students seemed to follow so, if I can read body language, it probably worked for them too. We’ll see tomorrow when I review the important concepts. Of course that will not come without significant brooding and maybe even a little nausea.

Don’t worry it’s just me

Hey there, thanks for coming to my brand new sparkly blog. I’ve been thinking about starting a blog in earnest for some time, but I’ve had trouble narrowing my focus onto a particular theme or avenue of my life. I never really did figure that out, but maybe a focus will reveal itself over time.

I call my webpage “theanatomist” because that is my job. I am an anatomy professor at a large medical school. I also think that I tend to see the world and my own life from the perspective of an anatomist. When I teach anatomy, one of the biggest messages I try to convey is the connectedness and relatedness of the body. Every muscle is somehow related to every bone, nerve, artery, etc. through an elegant system of attachments, both visible and invisible. This connectedness really matters in a clinical situation where one thing is injured leading several others to topple like dominoes. Similarly, there is remarkable connectedness between bodies. Once you get the skin and fat off, we’re all pretty much the same parts arranged in exactly the same way. I see everything in my life and the world as incontrovertibly linked. I remember the first time I had the realization that I am a part of everything else, and everything else is a part of me. I felt strangely safe.

When I think about why I decided to devote my career to the study of anatomy, it doesn’t take me long to come up with the reason. It’s simple – I want to be able to construct an entire human being by myself in my mind. From the cells to the tissues to the organs to the whole crazy functioning body, leaving no stone unturned. Of course this is probably impossible, but it leaves me with a place to go in a science that is in many ways no longer changing.

Outside of my professional life, I think most people who know me would describe me as funny, smart, easy-going and caring. I find myself to be predictable, unmotivated and a chronic quitter. I’ll concede to being funny, smart, easy-going and caring, but that’s not what I see right away. Funny how that works. The one person who probably sees all of these things is my partner Jason. He and I share our life together in Iowa City, the proud owners of an ever-growing pet family. In some ways we’re the so much the same (love of lifelong learning, need for quiet time away from the world), in others we are complete opposites (organization [me lots, him none], creativity [him lots, me none]). In other words, we suit each other perfectly.

I hope you enjoy this and hopefully many forthcoming blogettes. You can expect to read stories about my life in the academic world, good times with friends and family (sorry lolcats haters, but pets are included in that), and the adventures of two definitely hip but decidedly unfabulous gay guys in Iowa who just bought their first house together.