“I feel fortunate to work with amazing students who challenge me daily. I wouldn’t be the educator I am without them.”

When Nicole Ventura was a third-year biomedical sciences undergraduate at the University of Guelph, one of her classes included a full-body dissection in an anatomy lab. The experience was transformative. “The beauty and complexity of the human body drew me into loving anatomy,” she recounts. “My professor was a young woman – I didn’t have many female professors at the time – so she was a role model. I could see myself doing that.”

Not only is Ventura “doing that” – she’s excelling. At the morning Science Convocation ceremony on June 5, Ventura was presented with the Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching – Associate Professor.

Anatomy lab is a “sacred place”

After completing her MSc and PhD at Queens, Ventura joined McGill’s Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in 2015.

Today, she teaches Anatomy 315 and 316, focusing on the human musculoskeletal system and visceral anatomy, respectively; each course consists of lectures and labs. Her students are undergraduates from the full range of health sciences programs: nursing, medicine, dentistry, physical and occupational therapy, and kinesiology.

“The anatomy lab is a unique and sacred place in which to teach,” she says. “We’re fortunate at McGill to have a generous body-donor community of amazing, selfless individuals, who have contributed much more to education than they would probably have realized when they decided to be donors.”

While many institutions teach anatomy without cadaveric dissection, Ventura argues seeing and touching human anatomy is essential for students to truly understand the body. “We prepare students for the anatomy lab by talking about the donors and the value of what they will learn from them, so the students feel comfortable coming into the space,” she says. “I present this as an opportunity for them to meet their first patient. So they may come in with a mix of curiosity and some anxiety, but they leave with an appreciation not just for anatomy and the knowledge they’ve gained, but also for the donors.”

Coming up with new ways to keep students engaged

In the lecture hall, Ventura devises approaches to keep all 200 students engaged. “Anatomy can be very tangible. My students laugh, but I get all 200 of them standing and doing little dances to remember myotomes and dermatomes. I bring students to the front of the lecture hall to demonstrate different muscular features, breaking up a didactic lecture with something they can see or do.”

“As educators, we need to reflect on how we are teaching, because classrooms and technologies are always changing,” she says. “I’ve altered my approach every year, based on what succeeded and what did not.”

For instance, she has incorporated polling software into her classes, so students can respond to questions via their phones or tablets, and she can assess their knowledge of material on the fly – thus allowing her to immediately address misunderstandings or reinforce ideas. “I’m aiming to make my classroom equitable and inclusive, because everybody learns in different ways,” she says.

Complimentary pursuits

Ventura’s teaching complements her research in interprofessional near-peer education. “We could start professional education where students from different health science programs work together on a concept that they’re all learning, such as anatomy or physiology,” she says. “So early in their education they can learn how to work as a team.”

She notes how nursing students from the Bachelor of Nursing (Integrated) program have already worked in a clinical setting so they can bring that perspective to the anatomy lab, which enriches the learning experience for other students – who also bring different perspectives to the table. “This sense of teamwork is something they could bring into future clinical practice,” says Ventura, who collaborated with Ingram School of Nursing colleagues to integrate anatomy formally into the Bachelor of Nursing (Integrated) program.

Learning from her students

Thanks to her pedagogical commitment, Ventura is amassing a collection of teaching awards. In 2019 she received the Osler Award for Teaching, in she 2021 won the Faculty Teaching Innovation Award for her work on interprofessional peer-teaching in the anatomy lab, and in 2022 she was named to the Faculty Honour List for Teaching Excellence. “I’ve never really expected these awards, so it’s very humbling,” she says. “When I received the email announcing I was receiving the Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching, I had to have my husband read it back to me!”

“I feel fortunate to work with amazing students who challenge me daily. I wouldn’t be the educator I am without them. I tell students, you’re going to learn from me, hopefully, and I know I’m going to learn from you,” she explains. “So, a big thank you to the students I’ve taught over the years: I’ve definitely changed as an educator and as a person because of them.”