July 12, 2019

Kelli Sullivan, PhD: Starting with the basics

Anatomy education creates foundation of scientific medical training

Kelli A. Sullivan, PhD first came to the University of Michigan as a postdoctoral fellow in 1993. She began teaching anatomy to our med students in 2006 as a part-time lecturer and then became a member of the Division of Anatomical Sciences within the Department of Surgery and full-time lecturer in 2011. Here, she answers 10 questions about why she became an educator and what lessons she has learned along the way.

How did you become an anatomy professor?

I had an amazing undergraduate professor, Dr. Elaine Chapman, who told stories of her PhD years, qualifying exams, thesis defense, etc., and it sounded really exciting and fun. I knew I didn't want to go to medical school so I applied to every cell biology and anatomy department I could find. Illinois College did not have an active research program so I was clueless, but I knew that I had to get a PhD if I wanted to teach at a liberal arts college. I was very lucky to be accepted at the University of Kentucky.

What appeals to you about medical education?

I really enjoy the opportunity to share the knowledge I have accumulated over the years with a new group of excited individuals every year and the chance to interact with them across their education. After they have been in clinic, they teach me. It’s incredibly useful to know how what we teach is translated into patient care.

You teach several anatomy courses at different levels within the medical school. How would you describe the way anatomy is incorporated into the curriculum for the med students?

The emphasis in the first year curriculum is foundational, i.e., what every single medical practitioner needs to know. As the students progress, the information is more specialty specific and more detailed.

In addition to the anatomy lab, what other resources are available to med students to learn about anatomy?

Dissection will always be the absolute best way to learn anatomy. No other resource can replace the sensory feedback of how a nerve or a tendon or a muscle feels. We give lectures to orient the students on what to expect when they get to the lab. We also have amazing online resources. These were created by Dr. Kathleen Alsup and Dr. Glenn Fox and include clear learning objectives, a step-by-step dissection guide, and most importantly, BlueLink images. BlueLink is specifically based on our current curriculum.

What are some of your most memorable moments with med students?

The very first time they meet their anatomical donors. This is awful and wonderful at the same time. Most are a little overwhelmed, all are deeply respectful. At the annual memorial service, medical and dental students express their appreciation to the donors' families. Listening to their essays will truly take your breath away.

What do you see is your overall purpose/mission when it comes to shaping future physician leaders?

As an anatomist, a basic scientist and a patient, my personal goals for my students are 1) don't stick a needle in a nerve, i.e., know what is below the surface; 2) keep learning, don't assume that what you learned in medical school five years ago is still state of the art; and 3) be a real person, it will be good for you and your patients.

What are some of the characteristics that describe UMMS students?

These are very busy people! Most of them are involved with multiple extracurricular projects. They are also very cooperative, they share study resources and are incredibly supportive of one another. I give a lot of credit to the admissions committee for choosing not only smart people, but also creative and fun people.

What do you like about working with med students?

They keep me up to date with current culture. I don't have kids of my own, but I feel like I have over 100 new kids every year. All of the anatomy faculty are happy to see our students come back and visit, let us know where they are and what they are doing.

What do you like to do outside of the med school?

My husband and I love hanging out on the local lakes. I knit all the time, love dogs and enjoy visiting my siblings.

What is your advice to a prospective med student who is considering the University of Michigan Medical School for their medical education?

Pursue your passion, whatever it is. You don't have to be a super science nerd to get into medical school. Grades and MCAT scores are important, but what is more important is to push your own limits.