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Our first microanatomy, embryology, and histology exam is in two weeks. To give you a detailed sense of what it is, perhaps, like, to study at IMS-Milan, I will be blogging about my test preparation.

As I have explained before, the first semester in our MD program is divided into three modules: 1) Human Body (HB – microanatomy, embryology, and histology), 2) Cells, Molecules, and Genes (CMG – cellular and molecular biology, and genetics), and 3) Fundamentals of Basic Sciences (FBS – biophysics and biochemistry). We can choose to take our exams on various dates between the end of January and the end of February. I have decided to take the Human Body exam on February 8, which 14 days from now. I plan to take the CMG exam on February 15, and FBS on February 25.

Learning the astounding amount of information in medical school is often compared to drinking from a fire hose. How, then, do you consolidate it all in your own brain, such that you can pass a test about it? Medical students, of course, have been dealing with this question for centuries. What you are about to read, is just my strategy — my lived experience of this process, doing it in English, in Italy. It does not represent the study strategy of my classmates, who are preparing for exams in diverse ways, suited best to themselves.

Between now and February 8 — and indeed, until March 1 — we have a revision period, with no school obligations. The only required meeting is a review session, on Friday, January 29, for the histology practical portion of our exam. (In this practical, we will have 20 minutes to look at a microscope slide, and describe the tissues that we see, on a blank piece of paper. The slide could come from any part of the body. We have a similar process for another slide, but using the language of microanatomy, rather than histology.) I, personally, have very few other obligations over this time span, the exceptions being on February 4, 6, and 7, during part of the day.

A typically-marked textbook page

A typically-marked textbook page

So, one way of dividing up the material in our HB curriculum is by topic. We have a number of textbooks, each of which treats the material in a somewhat different way. Pawlina’s Histology: A Text and Atlas tends to combine histology and physiology; Kierzenbaum’s Histology and Cell Biology: an Introduction to Pathology does the same, but with a lot of pathology thrown in; Wheater’s Functional Histology focuses mostly on microscopic images; Moore’s The Developing Human is a thorough look at embryology; Langman’s Medical Embryology is more like an outline with awesome animations known as Simbryo; and Gray’s Anatomy (1901) provides an elegantly-written, if sometimes outdated, overview of everything. In order to keep interest in the material over the next two weeks, I like to think of these authors as in a dialogue with one another, as if you had some of the world’s greatest experts sitting around a table, discussing medical topics. (And, indeed, these authors really are among the planet’s best experts in this material — at least, in teaching it. Almost all of them have won international prizes for their work.) Studying, then, is the act of getting into a kind of conversation with them. It is about really engaging the material, which I do with pen and highlighter. My books are intensely marked up, as I write down and doodle whatever responses and questions I have to each author, as if I were in a tutorial with him or her.

At the end of each day — each topic — after moving through the textbooks, I do review questions from: 1) the BRS (Barron’s Review Series) Cell Biology and Histology and 2) Histology World, which is an amazing online review site for histology practice. Then, I go to our professor’s slides and my lecture notes for those topics, noting anything that the professor mentioned that was not in the textbooks.

As I move through this process over the next two weeks, I will update you on how the studying is going. Am I learning and retaining information? What was fascinating? What was difficult? How is my motivation? and so forth. This way, you can get a sense of what it is like really to be buried under the books of med school, in English, in Italy. This may help you, perhaps, to decide whether it is something you would also like to do.

The review schedule of topics, day-to-day, is:

Wed, Jan 27: Embryonic development through the fourth week (body cavities)

Thu, Jan 28: The respiratory system

Fri, Jan 29: The digestive and urinary system [Note: a reader has pointed out that this is a huge topic for one day. I’m putting it there because I reviewed the digestive and urinary systems quite extensively over the holidays (not that I am an expert, by any means).] 

Sat, Jan 30: Male and female reproductive systems

Sun, Jan 31: The cardiovascular system, blood, and lymph [Note: same as above] 

Mon, Feb 1: Bone and cartilage; muscle

Tue, Feb 2: Development of pharyngeal appartatus, face, and neck

Wed, Feb 3: The nervous system

Thu, Feb 4: Endocrine organs

Fri, Feb 5: The integumentary system (basically, skin) and adipose tissue

Sat, Feb 6: Birth defects & signalling pathways

Sun, Feb 7: Review, mainly of histology and microanatomy slides, practicing description of them

Mon, Feb 8 – exam

Erik Campano

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Erik Campano is a graduate student in Umeå, Sweden, studying the ethics of artificial intelligence in medicine. He formerly was an academic consultant to the English-language medical school of the University of Turin. Erik completed his Bachelor’s of science in Symbolic Systems (cognitive science) at Stanford University, and then he worked for about eight years as a radio news anchor, before moving to biomedical scientific study and research at the University of Paris and Columbia University. Erik grew up in Connecticut, is a citizen of the United States and Germany, and his family is a mix of Filipino, Italian, and German.
Erik Campano