SMHS Faculty Spotlight
SMHS Faculty Spotlight
CFE (Center for Faculty Excellence)

GW School of Medicine & Health Sciences Center for Faculty Excellence 

December 2022 Faculty Spotlight
Excellence in teaching & learning, scholarly endeavors, and leadership are all around us at SMHS. The Center for Faculty Excellence would like to Spotlight our faculty’s contributions to SMHS, George Washington University, and beyond. Each month we will spotlight faculty from across SMHS, MFA, and Children's. We want to thank our highlighted faculty members for sharing with us their advice and perspectives!
- SMHS Center for Faculty Excellence
Dr. Melissa Carroll, Associate Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology
Join the CFE as we highlight Dr. Melissa Carroll, who discusses her current projects and research that is both identifying the lack of representation and diversity in medical and health education, but also providing solutions and resources for diverse anatomical illustrations. Dr. Carroll discusses her evolution as an anatomist and advocate for inclusive teaching and practices. She is the recipient of two major funding initiatives from the American Association of Anatomy (AAA) - Portfolios of People: Advancing Anatomical Representation Together (POP AART) and the Global Neuroanatomy Network (GNN).


Melissa Carroll, PhD, MS, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology here at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Melissa teaches anatomy and neuroanatomy to medical, graduate, and undergraduate students. She has published and presented on anatomical waxes, anatomical education, and anatomical variations. Melissa is also the Founder of Black in Anatomy, a grassroots 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose goal is to promote and celebrate Black contributions to anatomical sciences.

Interview Q/A

How long have you been at GWSMHS? What drew you to this current position?
Melissa: I joined GW as a faculty member in the Anatomy and Cell Biology Department in July of 2021. Previously, I was an associate professor at DeSales University, where I served as a founding faculty member of the Physical Therapy program. I was drawn to this position at GW specifically because it married the best parts of my prior teaching experience. My position at GW has also allowed me to teach what I enjoy, Neuroanatomy and Anatomy, and the flexibility to explore my research interests as well as professional development opportunities.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in Anatomy? 

Melissa: My original plan was to go to medical school and pursue a career in clinical practice, but when I started as an undergrad at Colorado State University, my Anatomy course altered my career aspirations. The course allowed us the opportunity to work with prosections (previously dissected specimens). As undergrads, we looked at donor material, but in graduate-level courses, students were given the opportunity to actually dissect, which I found to be very interesting. So as a senior I was able to petition to be added to the graduate course. Being able to dissect increased my intrigue in the field and gave me the opportunity to kinesthetically explore human variation outside of what we traditionally see. Most times we are more focused on the visual and structural differences that we see when we look at individuals. However, when we can dissect these structures on the inside, it demonstrates how many more similarities we have. I often say that it truly shows us the beautiful complexity of what a human really is. 
Taking the graduate course influenced me to get a Masters in Anatomy at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine before pursuing a medical career. During my Master's, I had an opportunity to teach medical students. This experience of teaching made me realize how much I enjoyed medical education and ultimately resulted in me pursuing a doctorate in Anatomy.
What are your major responsibilities here at GWSMHS (teaching- courses; research; service)?

Melissa: Overall my responsibilities are still evolving, but all involve teaching; research; service. I am currently the course director for Human Clinical Neuroanatomy (ANAT 6160) and co-director of the Special Project in Anatomical Sciences (ANAT 6292) course, which are both graduate-level courses in our Graduate Certificate in Anatomical and Translational Sciences (GCATS) Program. I also serve as the co-director of the Human Functional Neuroanatomy course for undergraduate students and lecture in the Anatomy for Physician Assistant students as well as in the Brain Behavior Block within the medical curriculum. In addition, I am a part of the gross anatomy laboratory instruction team for the preclinical curriculum.
Melissa: With respect to research, I have a few ongoing projects. One of these projects; Portfolios of People: Advancing Anatomical Representation Together (POP AART) recently received funding through The American Association for Anatomy (AAA), where I also serve on the Board of Directors. I am also a co-investigator for the Global Neuroanatomy Network (GNN), which aims to be an international platform where members can access and share support by exchanging expertise and curated peer-reviewed neuroanatomy teaching resources. In addition, I have a few other manuscripts that I'm working on collaboratively with colleagues and recently I became an Associate Editor for the Anatomical Sciences Education journal.
Melissa: I am also the founder and serve on the Board of Directors for Black in Anatomy, which is a grassroots non-profit organization to uplift, support, and amplify Black contributions to anatomical science.
What is your favorite part of teaching at SMHS?

Melissa: My favorite part is working in a team-taught environment. I work with phenomenal colleagues within the outstanding GW Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. Our department equips teaching faculty with learning new pedagogical approaches and new ways of both presenting didactically and in the laboratory. I am constantly blown away by their scholarly products and their success in getting grant funding and publishing etc.  I appreciate having access to the science that our research-focused faculty is doing and have really enjoyed the opportunities to collaborate on ways of expanding equity and inclusion. 
What about the future of the Anatomy and Cell Biology department excites you?

Melissa: Recently, the department completed a self-assessment that allowed us to identify our true strengths. It was really exciting to see the collaboration amongst colleagues and the potential that we have as a department to move forward and make significant impacts. Everyone in our department, especially on the teaching faculty side, has been open to collaborative research projects as well as being very intentional about wanting to be inclusive within the classroom. I really believe that creating a safe space for all is an exciting place to be as a department that deals in health and medical science and education.
What is the POP AART project? And how did this project come about- Who did you collaborate with?

Melissa: As I mentioned earlier one of the projects I am working on as a co-investigator is POP AART which is Portfolios of People: Advancing Anatomical Representation Together. It was a project that emerged from the discussions between me and a few of my anatomy colleagues, Drs. Jerry Guillot, Kelly Harrell, and Theo Smith. We were just overall frustrated with the lack of representation that we were seeing in both anatomical textbook images and narratives and the field of Anatomy at large. Historically excluded and underrepresented groups have lacked representation in publically prominent positions within Anatomy but frequently were used as anatomical specimens for scientific experimentation (Sumner et al., 2022). This need for inclusive representation is not only in ethnic diversity but there is also a need for diversity of body size, body type, developmental differences, neurodiversity, sex, gender, and all things with respect to human variation. Showing differences in things like stature, presentation of scars, tattoos, etc. As a science that is supposed to demonstrate human variation, we are not doing a good job of holding true to the principle of what it means. We spent almost two years discussing the lack of representation and what we could pitch directly to the AAA board. 
Increasing representation of human variation is partly where this POP AART project has developed. Currently, we are focusing explicitly on creating a repository of images and illustrations that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We want to make sure that they're accessible to all educators across the globe. The photographers and models that we'll be using for the photographs and the illustrators that we'll be using for the illustrations will have an opportunity to self-identify if they wish to do so. We hope this self-identification will allow a deeper appreciation of the diversity of images and the creatives that have contributed significantly in producing the repositories – identifying visible and invisible variations within the human population.
Tell us about the process of doing such a large-scale project like POP AART and how long it took to get elements of the project up and running.

Melissa: Since we received AAA funding for this project we have collaborated nationally and internationally, with anticipation for the recruitment of photographers, models, and illustrators for the repository. This project is much larger than those considered for the traditional funding resources offered by the AAA, such as the Innovations Program. Therefore, it has been in development for several years. It has been about a year since we were notified of the original funding, primarily because we've been working on legal contracts to ensure that we're protecting everybody who is going to contribute to the project itself. We want to be as mindful as possible of this. We want to ensure that we can provide appropriate compensation and credit to illustrators, photographers, the models, and others involved in the project while also trying to make sure that the work we are doing will be accessible and available to all. We are really fortunate that the AAA Board of Directors noticed a need and were willing to prioritize support for diversity and inclusion initiatives as it relates to medical and health education.
What are the next steps for the POP AART project?

Melissa: We have done a lot of behind-the-scenes work including photographer recruitment and received some original model shots. We are also aware of illustrators who are looking forward to contributing their work to the project but this has taken some time in respect to legally protecting their work and copyright for only formal educational use. We are hoping in 2023, to start opening the request for applications and bringing together all the content that shows diverse images of human beings. We hope to have the Beta launch of our project to share with the anatomy community soon.
How do you plan to continue or extend this work?

Melissa: I recently was invited to be a keynote speaker for their talk on diversity at the 2022 Annual Meeting for the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI). It was very exciting for me with my work in these projects and organizations that target a need for diversity as well as my own personal curiosity in this topic. I have discovered this interesting relationship between the first Black medical illustrators and some of the first Black American Anatomy and Biological Anthropologists. There's a really interesting history there that intrigued not only myself but also my colleagues. We see and are trained in these images that were primarily curated by Frank Netter and they are regarded as the standard anatomical form, but why is that? I have had an opportunity to explore the history of anatomical and medical illustrations and see some of the evolution of this lack of representation. The presentation I gave to the AMI is one of the other projects that I have in development for a journal article because there is such a rich history that we're just not aware of. I am investigating how it could be that we, as Black people, were so often specimens for anatomical dissection but never a centralized feature in anatomical illustration. When you look at the history, it really comes down to an illustrator's choice, what they may deem “looked better” on the page with respect to the contrast between the dissection itself and then also the skin tone. Overall exploring some of the literature that's already out there, it was a very eye-opening talk for me.

Melissa: I'm very excited to have made great connections with some of the medical illustration programs. There are only about five accredited programs in the United States and in Canada. I really believe we are on the precipice of a great movement for increasing diversity in medical illustrations. I have already started collaborating with a researcher who conducted a historical and contextual analysis of whitewashing medical illustrations, where black models were changed to have a white skin tone and European features. I am hoping to get the manuscript concerning this topic out sometime next year. My hope is that these studies and projects demonstrate how much medical illustration students have to prepare and be so diverse in their skills. Additionally, it will give those students opportunities to highlight some of their work within the POP AART project as well.
What impact will your work have on students, faculty, SMHS, and/or health professions or science in general?

Melissa: I know many historically excluded and underrepresented groups can identify with the feeling that the more that you succeed, the less you see people that look like you. I feel like that is a place I have gotten to within my career and I really do not think that should be the accepted norm. This idea of minority tax, or being the only Black person or representative in either my field of study or in my professional networks within Anatomy (Carroll et al., 2022).
Melissa: I realized in getting to a place where I am now in my own career, where I am very comfortable and confident with what I can do and what I can't do, that I want to make it easier for students who are coming behind me that are looking for the same opportunities to learn their individual strengths. So I would say to my colleagues and to SMHS students that may have a diverse visible or an invisible lived experience and a different view on life, I want to ensure that the classroom is safe for them. For instance, I want to be very intentional in discussing topics of sex and gender with respect to the anatomy classroom because it should be a safe space for our colleagues and students that may identify differently than the binary extremes of the spectrum. I am so passionate about this feeling of safety in the classroom because I know what it feels like to be visibly different and not feel safe in my educational experience and if there is anything I can do now that I am in a place of influence I want to ensure that nobody has to feel that way moving forward, be it faculty, staff, students, technicians, or anyone that interacts with us.
Melissa: I did not originally foresee the topic of diverse representation in medical education in my future. However, in the wake of all the events of 2020 and all of the frustrations of that and coming to understand who I am and how I identify, has given me a drive and passion to increase empathy and humanism in what we do, especially in healthcare and medical education. I think these ideals are the core of what we're supposed to be here to accomplish at SMHS.
What keeps you motivated during the day?

Melissa: That question hits home a little bit more for me because my mother passed away in August, and I keep a picture of her on my desk. Keeping her picture near me is a constant reminder of how proud she is of me and how much it would mean to her for me to keep her legacy going through the work I do. Whenever I get low or frustrated I just think about my mom, and how when I got to a place where I didn't know how to continue to push forward she supported me and encouraged me to continue going. If there is anything I can do, to closely resemble the support that my mom gave me, I know I could really make a long-lasting impact on colleagues, students, and beyond.
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