Jul 3, 2024

Pathologists’ Assistant student helps develop curriculum through research

Programs: Graduate, Programs: MHSc Lab Medicine, Agile education
Two women smiling and holding a certificate
Sam Nacci (right) receives first place for the Educational Research Platform Award at Anatomy Connected 2024
By Jenni Bozec

The MHSc in Laboratory Medicine program was launched in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto in 2020. The two-year master’s program seeks to train Pathologists’ Assistants (PA) and Clinical Embryologists (CE) who not only have the skills they need to do the job, but the mindset and ability to be leaders in their respective fields and shape the future of their professions.

Part of that training includes the development of an academic mindset of critical thinking and the ability to conduct and apply novel research. Students in the program continuously shape it through their feedback and input and conduct a capstone research project in their second year. For 2nd year PA student Sam Nacci, her research is set to make a difference in how embryology topics are taught in the program, which recently won her an award.

During the program’s accreditation process through the National Accreditation Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS), NAACLS suggested that the curricular content for PA students could be expanded to include more embryology. When the program team, including Pathologists’ Assistant and program Education and Clinical Coordinator, William Tsui, and anatomy expert Dr. Danielle Bentley, investigated what that might include, they found no clear guidelines. 

Dr. Bentley commented, “When approached to design the embryology curriculum for the PA program, I wanted to ensure I created content that was job-specific. A national needs assessment directed at PAs and Pathologists was a perfect capstone-project and Sam was the perfect student for this. I had taught Sam her Gross Anatomy Dissection class and knew her to be a focused, dedicated, professional student who had strong research potential. Watching her grow as an independent student researcher has brought me immense joy. She has consistently exceeded my expectations, resulting in two international conference presentations and a full manuscript for submission – more than is required for her capstone project. Her project results directly informed the newly created embryology curriculum, an experience that very few students will have as an element of their professional training“.

Anatomy is a vital part of learning for Pathologists’ Assistants. All development of the human body stems from embryo development. Many anomalies they might see in grossing or in perinatal autopsies/pediatric cases have a direct link to embryological development. However, embryology is a vast field of knowledge and curricular time in the program is limited. This project was vital to assess what should be taught in a professional program. “I think it's very important for us to be well-rounded individuals, but this research allowed us to see what was vocationally relevant, therefore not overburdening the students with irrelevant content,” explains Nacci.

Nacci conducted a survey, distributed to Pathologists’ Assistants and Pathologists across Canada, based on 97 learning objectives proposed by the American Association for Anatomy (AAA). They had a field expert select the learning objectives they deemed relevant to pathology practice, then the survey asked respondents to rank them whether they were essential or not. Nacci clarified, “The proposed learning objectives covered 16 general content themes spanning topics such as terminology, placenta and fetal membranes, gastrointestinal, urinary and reproductive systems. I then identified learning objectives that reached a certain statistical threshold as essential”. What surprised Nacci was the lack of consensus in the field. “Responses greatly varied and I’m still conducting further analysis. There are variations related to years of experience and disagreement between different professional avenues/services, which is exciting for us to continue to explore.”

A woman standing at a podium speaking
Sam Nacci presents her research at Anatomy Connected 2024

Nacci presented her research at Anatomy Connected 2024, an annual conference hosted by the AAA, winning first place for the Educational Research Platform Award. 

The data collected has already been used to design the embryology course that current PA students in LMP are taking as part of their anatomy content, expanding what was one lecture to a series of focused modules that provide contextual interpretation and why it's important in PA work. Helping inform curriculum design was eye-opening for Nacci. “I learned to appreciate what goes on behind the scenes in terms of developing a curriculum and the work that is involved in that. It’s very rewarding to know that the students will be taught relevant information that’s applicable to the field and I had a part to play in that. LMP has always been very open to feedback and evolving our curriculum in order to make us well-rounded individuals when we come out of this program which I’m grateful for”.

Nacci will be presenting the research in September at the American Association for Pathologist Assistant’s Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as a student representative for the program. She is excited about bringing what they’ve learned to a broader audience, “We’ve already heard from other instructors in the states that they don’t teach enough embryology in their programs and are interested in our research. I’m looking forward to developing it further, bringing it to publication, and perhaps we might be able to influence other researchers across Canada and the US to see this approach to curriculum design as one they may also wish to employ or take what we have found and tailor their curriculum accordingly.”

Find out about the MHSc in Laboratory Medicine

This story showcases Agile Education (pillar 5) of the LMP strategic plan.

two women smiling at the camera
Sam Nacci (left) with Dr. Danielle Bentley (right)