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Buona saluté

Amanda Haage, professor of Anatomy & Physiology, takes undergrads to Italy to learn about the history (and art) of medicine

Anna Kinney and Amanda Haage
Anna Kinney and Amanda Haage in Italy. Contributed image.

By Brian James Schill

Having just spent a week-plus in the heart of the Roman Catholic faith tradition, Leokadia “Leo” Bring was perhaps in the right frame of mind for an admission of guilt.

“I’d never been really interested in art — I didn’t really see how it applied to medicine,” the senior biology major confessed to North Dakota Medicine not long after returning to the U.S. from Italy. “But this trip really provided me with a new perspective on it. Seeing in-person how there was so much detail in these paintings and anatomical models, and how involved the artists were in the teaching of doctors in the past, was really interesting.”

Bring is referring to the Spring Break trip she took in March 2024, which, as part of the undergraduate biomedical sciences course BIMD 494, took her and a collection of classmates to Florence and Bologna in Italy to study the history and art of medicine.

“This was my first time abroad,” continued Bring, who hopes to begin medical school later this year. “It was uncomfortable and challenging at first. But afterward, I feel more well-rounded as a person and I do think that this will make me a better physician.”

Medicine abroad

Developed and led by the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) Kaess Endowed Professor of Anatomy & Cell Biology, Amanda Haage, the one-credit course brought a cohort of students interested in the health sciences to the European city last semester to learn about the history of medicine and see in-person the art that, as Bring said, helped educate medieval physicians.

The 10-day trip sent students not only to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, which houses Michaelangelo’s David, but the Museo Galileo (Galileo Museum), the Uffizi Gallery, and La Specola, which maintains a large collection of anatomical waxes.

“One of my professional societies — the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS) — has been helping members with study abroad arts and anatomy trips to Italy for a long time,” explained Haage, a former first-generation college student who studied abroad in New Zealand and has “always wanted to take students abroad.”

“A call came out from UND for study abroad trips, so I talked to Anna about combining anatomy with humanities, and we made it work.”

The Anna in question is Anna Kinney, coordinator of UND’s Writing Center and the UND Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program. A study abroad veteran herself, Kinney brought to the course a humanities background and helped Haage intertwine a variety of disciplines that too often are kept separate from each other in medical and other healthcare training programs.

“Amanda and I have had long conversations about opportunities to collaborate on writing at the medical school broadly,” Kinney added. “Not only about anatomy and physiology, but the value of being able to help students communicate science well to different audiences.”

To that end, Haage and Kinney built a course to be “housed” in the SMHS, recruited students, and flew to Italy — after a number of pre-flight meetings with students.

“There was a writing intensive reflection component of the class,” said Kinney. “It was important for us to help students think about their learning and think about the ways they might advocate for broader understanding of medicine and science.”

The art of medicine

To that end, the course ended up exploring the art of medicine in detail. And the timing of such a course was perfect, given discussions happening nationally about the connection between art and medicine.

In 2020, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) published “The Fundamental Role of the Arts and Humanities in Medical Education,” a report that reiterated the organization’s belief that “integration of the arts and humanities into medicine and medical education may be essential to educating a physician workforce that can effectively contribute to optimal health care outcomes for patients and communities.”

The report came just as UND’s own School of Medicine & Health Sciences put the finishing touches on what it was calling “Curriculum 2.0” – a new medical education curriculum designed not only to give students more elective courses during their first- and second-years, more active learning options in the classroom, and more clinical training sooner, but to better embed the arts and humanities into the curriculum.

Such training can begin at the undergraduate level, Haage suggested.

“The course was focused on art, but we wanted to go a bit outside of that and into culture more broadly — how science influences culture,” she said. “We talked about how astrology used to be considered a hard science, which is much different from how we think about it today. And we discussed things like wine and how winemaking is changing based on the genetic modification of grapes and availability of different breeds.”

All of which, added Kinney, helped students see the often direct connection between culture and the human body — and its illnesses.

“We talked a lot about the origins of science and art, about representing bodies,” she said. “To get us started, we discussed art and reproduction and how seeing artworks online, as reproductions, versus seeing them in their context changes our understanding of art and the objects being represented.”

As far as the students were concerned, though, the pitch was just about right.

“We saw wax sculptures, which was so cool,” added Nina Johnson, who is also looking to begin medical school after graduating from UND with her Bachelor of Science degree in health studies this year.

Johnson was especially impressed with the Museo di Palazzo Poggi in Bologna.

“I could have stayed there for probably seven days in that same building. I feel like it was definitely a ‘why medicine?’ moment for me. There was this big room with model fetuses everywhere. And that’s how students learned at the time about different orientations of fetuses inside the womb — on these sculptures that somebody made.”

Planning ahead

In the end, the trip was a mission accomplished, said Haage. So it is that she and Kinney are already developing what will become the next iteration of their course.

“This trip really revitalized my love of teaching,” she said. “I love teaching, and anatomy and physiology is a  great course. But it’s gigantic. I run a giant system for that course every semester. So, just getting to do something new and creative has really invigorated me. Having a closer, one-on-one relationship with the students for an entire week was great.”

Also revitalized was Johnson, who is already working hard to populate the next travel class in advance for Haage and Kinney.

“I talk about it to everybody in the lab,” said Johnson, who serves as a laboratory teaching assistant for Haage. “I talk about it every Tuesday from 12 to 2 p.m. I’m like, ‘What are you doing next year for spring break? You should go to Italy. It’s going to be really fun, I promise.’ I just feel so fortunate and so lucky to have been able to go on this trip, and I would recommend it to anyone.”

italian medical art museum
Photo shows anatomical artworks used in medical instruction. Contributed image.
Brian James Schill

About the author:

Brian James Schill is director of Alumni and Community Relations at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences.