The loud high-five reverberated throughout the hall filled with PhDs and students from prestigious medical schools around the globe.
Had you asked beforehand, Gil Johnson and Whitney Blodgett would never have expected to hear their names announced during the awards ceremony at the 19th Congress of the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists, held Aug. 9-11 at the ExCel convention center in London.
“I hadn’t even worn my suit to the banquet … just blue jeans and a collared shirt,” says Johnson.
But when they were announced as the recipients of the runner-up award for the Cave Young Investigator Poster Prize, a high-five between the two Missouri Southern State University students seemed like the perfect response.
The senior biology majors have made waves with their project, which could change the way anatomists analyze their data.
It’s a project that began last year in Missouri Southern’s cadaver lab and led to a new idea and collaboration with Dr. David Penning on statistical analysis.
“I was enrolled in Dr. Alla Barry’s Advanced Human Dissection class, and found that one of the cadavers had a variation in the brachial plexus,” says Johnson.
“The nerve network, which sends signals through the shoulder and arm, was missing the medial pectoral nerve and instead had two lateral pectoral nerves. I found a published paper about the variation the cadaver had, but the way they did their statistics, the assigned statistical values were wrong.”
He took his findings to Penning, an assistant professor of biology and environmental health, who taught Johnson’s biostats course. The seeming statistical errors in the paper seemed in line with something the class had recently discussed.
“We got to the topic of pseudoreplication, and the class learned how conceptually hitting copy and paste on data can lead to false conclusions,” says Penning. “Almost by happenstance, the first paper Gil found (on the nerve variation) was poorly designed.”
Johnson enlisted his classmate, Blodgett, to help him sort out where how the paper’s authors had had gone wrong. While anatomy isn’t her field of study, the methodology needed to study the issue was right in her wheelhouse.
“I’m more on the wildlife side of biology,” says Blodgett. “But I like statistics and like doing research, writing papers and finding out new things. I had never heard of pseudo replication before.”
But statistics, says Johsnon, is a “universal language” when it comes to its applications in the research field.
“You can take it and play in someone else’s back yard,” he says. “You’re just analyzing the data.”
Their research of other peer-reviewed material found a significant number of them had pseudoreplication, using inferential statistics to draw incorrect conclusions about the population. For example, anatomists incorrectly counted multiple measurements – such as two legs – from a cadaver, rather than treating the body as a single sample.
They presented their findings at the American Association of Clinical Anatomists’ annual meeting, held in June in Tulsa, Okla. Competing against medical students and PhDs from around the country, they received the Sandy Marks Jr. Award for their poster presentation in the education category.
“We were celebrating, and I said we should try to go to the London conference,” says Blodgett. “I asked Dr. Barry, but I didn’t expect her to say yes.”
Barry says she took the request straight to Dr. Paula Carson, MSSU’s provost/vice president of academic affairs. Working with other members of the School of Arts & Sciences and even the Institute of International Studies, quick arrangements were made for the students to travel to London to attend the conference.
At the conference, the students made their presentation and spoke with a number of other researchers about pseudoreplication and how it can affect anatomical research. Runner-up recognition for the Cave Young award is rare, and it marked the first time any American institution had been recognized since 2014.
“When people think about human anatomy, it’s ‘We already learned it 500 years ago. There’s nothing left to discover,’” says Barry. “But that’s a very wrong understanding.
“We’ve discovered so many different variations. Technology such as MRI and CT scans give us a better chance to learn about the human body and determine what is ‘normal anatomy’ and the variations of this normal.”
Penning says he was “pleasantly unsurprised” at the awards. “Their project evolved organically from a couple different observations, and we have been putting in hard work together for months. He and Whitney are both outstanding students, and they went for it.”
The students, with the help of Penning, are currently working on a paper they hope to submit to anatomical journals for potential publication.
“You always think about schools with the big money as doing all the founding research,” says Blodgett. “But this was an issue that has never been addressed in clinical anatomy. Even on a smaller budget you can still do groundbreaking research.”