The word sends shivers down the spine of nearly every health and pre-med student. ‘Cadaver class’ can be the most dreaded part of the curriculum.
But at NYU Steinhardt, human anatomy lab is one of the most sought-after courses for undergraduate and masters degree students requiring anatomy as a prerequisite for a degree. “It’s a course that is always filled, that students never drop, and one that students from other NYU colleges seek out,” says David Zapotocky, director of registration services.
If NYU students are dying to get into cadaver class, the reason is Offiong Aqua. A clinical associate professor of occupational therapy and physical therapy, Aqua is soft-spoken and compassionate. There is something in his disarming manner that can make a course that seems daunting to most students manageable and fun.
“Dr. Aqua takes his students through the anatomy step-by-step, quietly enthusiastic, cheering, coaching, pushing for more learning, and getting them to wonder,” says Jane Bear-Lehman, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy. “He recognizes his students’ fear and seems to magically instill a sense of trust by letting them know that he will be with them on the journey, and that they will be okay.”
Born in Nigeria, Aqua received an MD degree from the Faculty of Medicine at Friendship University in Moscow, Russia. His post-graduate training was in facio-maxillary surgery, and he discovered then that his passion was anatomy.
I was trained as a surgeon,” Aqua says, “and so I was always very excited to go into the body, and for me it is exciting to convey this to my students.”
Aqua admits that students come into his class hesitant and unnerved. In 15 years of teaching cadaver dissection, only two students have dropped his class. (One student said the cadaver reminded him of an uncle; another just couldn’t bear to take the course.)
Somehow through the magic of Aqua’s teaching, students come to accept the dead for what they can teach them, and many even return for Aqua’s advanced in-depth intersession anatomy course.
For some, cadaver class is the first step in establishing a professional identity.
“Dissecting the cadaver is an opportunity for students to see what they will end up practicing,” Aqua says. “When they handle the cadaver physically and dissect it, they see the nerves, the blood vessels…all of these things they will deal with as therapists. It gives you some perspective when you see everything inside a body.”
Offiong Aqua poses with Phil the skeleton of Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy (Photo: Brady Galan; concept: Sudipendra Pal).