The Path to Pathology

Posted at 10:51 am February 20, 2007 by Cindy Spiva-Evans

 pathology labEach year, in what has become an eagerly anticipated annual expedition, the San Diego Zoo’s Girls In Science (GIS) participants make their way all the way up Hospital Hill to the Pathology Department. Our first visit three years ago was a huge success, and our sessions there consistently rank at the top of the girls’ favorites list. (I am always secretly pleased that they enjoy Pathology so much, having worked in the department myself for a year on loan.)

The team in pathology (now officially renamed the Wildlife Disease Laboratories/CRES) works together to figure out what causes disease and death in the animals in our collection. The GIS learn about three different aspects of the diagnosis process: necropsy, histology, and microscopic study of tissue samples.

The girls always expect necropsy to be gruesome and are prepared with their ” this is gonna be gross”¦” faces when we walk in. But they always find body parts absolutely fascinating””especially diseased ones! The path techs explain which tissues are healthy and which are not, and why. Mechanisms of disease are fascinating, and interest wins over revulsion every time.

Once tissues are sampled, they’re put into formalin to fix for a few days. Formalin stops the rotting process, essentially, so that tissue can be examined microscopically. ” Fixed” tissue has to be cut into tiny pieces, which are then embedded in paraffin and sliced into thin strips and put onto slides. This portion of the process is called histology, which translates into ” the study of tissues.” A tissue is really just a group of cells that work together, so when the cells stop working together there’s a problem.

The prepared slides are delivered to the pathologists, who examine the tissues for signs of disease or damage. The diagnosis process is very like something you might watch on CSI; two of our alums decided they wanted to become crime scene investigators after their visit to pathology.

After a couple of visits to the Zoo, the GIS will spend an afternoon in the classroom processing all of the information that they have collected. Little do they know, the activity supporting this particular visit will be a virtual mouse necropsy that they’ll do online.

I LOVE being a teacher!

Cindy Spiva-Evans is an educator at the San Diego Zoo.

Girls In Science is a program for Roosevelt Middle School girls which creates science-based experiences with professional women at the San Diego Zoo. The program is funded through the generosity of the Wells Fargo Foundation.

Read about previous Girls In Science activities.

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One Response to “The Path to Pathology”

  1. Margaret in VA says:

    Thanks, Cindy for sharing with the girls and with us. These young people are so blessed to have these programs and such caring mentors and teachers to bring these things to life for them. It will inspire them for lifetime of learning and hopefully caring for their environment and making our world a better place for all creatures, plants and animals to live.