Love science? Want to teach? Consider DMU’s M.S.A. program

Des Moines University’s master of science in anatomy degree (M.S.A.) program prepares students for a variety of careers, including teaching. The program’s teaching track includes many first-year medical school classes, courses specifically designed for the anatomy master’s degree program and an extensive requirement for students to teach anatomy and serve as teaching assistants (TAs) for other students, including those in the University’s osteopathic medical program and podiatric medical program. Because of their interactions with DMU’s medical students, M.S.A. students gain not only thorough knowledge of human anatomy, but also insights on the clinical application of that knowledge. (The M.S.A. program also offers a thesis track designed to prepare students for a research-based career in comparative and evolutionary anatomy.)

The three M.S.A. graduates featured below found that the program sparked their passion for health and science as well as their enthusiasm for sharing it with others.

Keely Cassidy, M.S.A.’11, Ph.D., was set to apply for medical school until, as an undergraduate at Buena Vista University, she studied for a year in Ireland and “had an epiphany.”

Keely Cassidy, M.S.A.’11, Ph.D.

“I realized I didn’t want to have people’s lives in my hands. So what did I find so interesting about medicine that doesn’t involve providing patient care?” she says.

Her academic adviser suggested she look into DMU’s M.S.A. program. She had been a teaching assistant for athletic training courses, including human anatomy, at BVU, but the M.S.A. program sealed her decision to become an educator.

“I didn’t see myself wanting to be a teacher until I was in the M.S.A. program,” Keely says. “With the faculty, I was able to see different teaching styles and to start putting myself in that mindset. If I taught students at the medical school level, I would be working as a guide for very motivated students.”

She also realized the M.S.A. program was great preparation for a Ph.D. program. She went on to earn her doctorate in anatomy and cell biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where she received an Influential Instructor Award and an Outstanding Associate Instructor Award. She now is an assistant professor in the department of genetics, cell biology and anatomy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where she is course director and assistant course director for various anatomy courses and the block director for the UNMC College of Medicine’s genitourinary, reproductive and developmental block. She received the college’s Basic Science Outstanding Teaching Award in 2019.

“I really credit the M.S.A. program for showing me what teaching is and can be. Teaching is where my passion is,” she says. “The program is a great place to prove to yourself that you can handle a rigorous course load and high expectations. It helps you figure out where your interests lie and where to use your energy to go down that path.”

Jori Avery, M.S.A.’14, earned her bachelor’s degree in graphic design and biology at Southern Nazarene University, a small liberal arts institution that honed her love of art and literature as well as anatomy and dissection. “I like the artistic side of anatomy. I think it’s really beautiful,” she says.

Jori Avery, M.S.A.’14

She was determined not to become a teacher, however. “I come from a line of educators and was very opposed to teaching,” she says. “But through the program at DMU, I came to enjoy it. Being a TA, I made it over the hurdle of being afraid of doing it. All these medical students are looking to you for answers. I could see how important my role was to them.”

Now assistant professor of biology at Grand View University in Des Moines, Jori teaches lower- and upper-division gross anatomy courses and is the only faculty member who teaches in the university’s cadaver lab, which she helped update and improve. She started an embryology class and currently is redesigning the histology class. In addition to embracing teaching, she found that DMU’s M.S.A. program only deepened her love of anatomy.

“As a TA, I would talk about how I like how we’re so connected. Anatomy affects everyone; everyone has a body,” she says. “The human body is so charted and organized, but every time you dissect a body, there’s so much mystery. The person’s liver digested every meal they ate. Their brain held every thought and idea they had.”

Jori also enjoyed interacting with DMU’s anatomy faculty, from teaching in the anatomy lab to doing research with Associate Professors Rachel Dunn, Ph.D., and Julie Meachen, Ph.D., to the dinner her class had with Donald Matz, Ph.D., chair of the department.

“That was new to me,” she says. “I felt very privileged because we were close to the faculty. From the very beginning, they were very accessible to us, and we were with them all the time. That made it less intimidating when you did need their help.”

Jori has recommended the M.S.A. program to many students. “It’s a program that really opens doors. It showed me, especially in working with faculty on research, that it’s not just for pre-med students. There are so many pathways you can take.”

Tessa Hartman-Miller, M.S.A.’19, has always been interested in biology. She was a pre-med major at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, where one of her faculty members suggested she teach before applying to medical schools. That changed her path.

Tessa Hartman-Miller, M.S.A.’19

“The M.S.A. program immersed me in the teaching experience, and I really enjoyed it,” she says.

As a TA for DMU’s osteopathic and podiatric medical students, Tessa quickly overcame feeling intimidated by the role. “If you trick yourself into thinking you know more about a topic than your audience, those nerves go away,” she says. “Teaching allows me to be a giant nerd about something I’m passionate about.”

She also worked to understand and convey anatomy’s clinical applications to health and health care, something she continues to do now as a visiting instructor of biology at Simpson College in Indianola, IA. There she teaches human anatomy, human physiology, human biology and biology laboratory.

“In class, I try to bring in clinical aspects through case studies and problem-based learning, such as a case the students have to use and explain from a physiological point of view,” she says. “I try to connect anatomy to other topics in biochemistry and physiology, which helps students connect that information.”

Tessa enjoys that she gets to know her students personally – the experience she had in DMU’s M.S.A. program.

“The DMU faculty are wonderful. They helped me with my CV and application to Simpson,” she says. “The M.S.A. program is a great steppingstone, a launchpad to other areas I may go into.”

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