Fluorescent lights flicker and formaldehyde burns the nose. While the cadaver lab may be a spooky sight for most, cell biology student Ayden Olsen (‘23) and recent cell biology graduate Craig Reeves (‘22) see the labs as exciting opportunities to teach students about the miracles of anatomy. However, working with cadavers presents several problems—the biggest being how quickly the tissue dries. As students in the College of Life Sciences where curiosity is encouraged, the two wanted to explore possible solutions.
“What usually happens in these cadaver labs is that the lower extremity muscles—we’re talking, like, the lower leg—end up going into overtime drying, which distorts the natural look of the muscle,” Reeves says. “You don’t see a nice muscle with red and white striation . . . you lose color completely. You’re not actually learning what it looks like.”
Excessive amounts of dried tissue make it near-impossible for anatomy students to identify distinct structures in the human body. As TAs in the anatomy lab, Reeves and Olsen needed more undamaged specimens to ensure that students had the best possible learning experience. Typically, they sprayed a wetting solution on the cadavers—but the process became difficult to work with, as quite a few tissue specimens dried before the anatomy students could use them. Olsen and Reeves needed to identify humectants (hydrating molecules) that could do the job quickly and cost-effectively.
“The humectants we use in cadaveric tissues are trying to draw water up from deeper tissues, as well as attract water from the atmosphere to the skin,” Reeves explains. Such a process requires a special type of molecule.
To find the most effective humectant, Olsen and Reeves worked together day and night. Reeves sprayed each tissue sample with one of five humectants. They then analyzed the data and put together the paper, poster, and grant. “We took our strengths and ran with them,” Reeves says, smiling. “It was a perfect partnership.”
They presented their research at the College Undergraduate Research Award (CURA) conference in November 2021 and won first place. Armed with funding and support from their peers, the pair had smooth sailing—right?
“Where do I even start with the obstacles?” Olsen laughs. “We had practically nothing to go off of, no prior research in the field of the efficiency of humectants on specimens. We didn’t know what experimental methods to use. We didn’t even know where to start.”
At the beginning of their project, they discovered research that had similar qualities to what they wanted to do in their experiment, and they collaborated with mortuary scientists in California. They addressed another hurdle: gathering tissue samples. Because the skin tissues came from different donors, each sample responded differently to the humectant.
“The results would be completely inconsistent, and we would be super confused,” Olsen says. But Olsen and Reeves didn’t stop trying. They obtained sheets of skin from multiple donors but ensured they only compared skin that was taken from the same source. “We began ensuring that the samples we used in each trial were taken from the same donor. This served to eliminate variation that may have been the result of varying skin thickness, composition, and other factors that are different from person to person,” says Olsen.
As science is all about overcoming obstacles and finding new solutions, Olsen and Reeves persevered through several setbacks to finally discover the humectant that best hydrated the skin: glycerol. Their research will continue as they graduate and pass the baton to fellow cell biology student, Rachel Prince (‘24).
Such a remarkable discovery can pave the way toward preserving cadavers to have longer lifespans in labs across the country. “Even though it was really difficult, and there were so many things to overcome in the project,” says Olsen, “Seeing our accomplishments really makes me optimistic that our research is valuable—that it will help other people.”