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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Choi

Innovative Teaching Practices: Student Writing Circle

First-time academic authorship, especially for undergraduate researchers, can be both intimidating and exciting. In a candid interview, two budding researchers — Peter Lombardi and Michelle Sue — share their intriguing journey of exploring rare anatomical variations and the insights gained from their shared experience.

Both students were enrolled in the University of Toronto's undergraduate dissection course, ANA400H1, where they gained hands-on anatomy education through the dissection of a human cadaver to investigate anatomical structures. Both students independently discovered rare anatomical anomalies within the donors. Peter stumbled upon a superior polar splenic artery during a routine dissection of the abdominal organs that piqued his curiosity due to its unexpected presence and atypical presentation. This alternative structure led him down a path of extensive research, aiming to highlight the diversity of splenic arterial variations and their clinical significance on gastrointestinal surgical procedures. Peter’s goal was to “express how rare these variations are, and whether they are negligible or have clinical significance, and to make sure that any information we do find provides some clinical utility during operations”. Similarly, during a dissection of the thorax [of the pleural cavities and lungs], Michelle was fascinated by an unusual presentation of the xiphoid process which contained an unexpectedly large foramen. This discovery was unlike anything their mentors had seen, prompting a deeper investigation: “[our] initial motivation was curiosity, and our supervisor [Dr. Bentley], who has many years of experience, had never seen a variation like this before so I was really driven to investigate this further,” Michelle explained. 

When rare anatomical variations are discovered during an educational dissection, students can lead the research and dissemination of case reports with the goal of publishing their discoveries in a journal for clinical case studies. Peter and Michelle were invited to prepare their manuscripts over the summer term of 2023. The researchers prepared their case reports to better understand the significance of their findings. Peter aimed to shed light on the importance of recognizing anatomical variations when planning gastrointestinal surgeries. An excerpt from his case study, published with the CUREUS Journal of Medical Science in November 2023, reads: “By adding to the existing literature regarding anatomical presentation of the splenic artery, the presented case may help surgeons and their collaborative healthcare teams gain a more comprehensive understanding of potential variations they may encounter during procedures,” [1]. Michelle’s report focused on the relevance of the discovery, hypothesizing about the bone's composition and the presence of a foramen. An excerpt from her paper, also published with the CUREUS Journal of Medical Science in May 2024, reads: “Thus, the presented findings are extraordinary [...] Due to its proximity to underlying thoracic and abdominal structures, medical professionals and acupuncturists risk adverse procedural complications if they do not have thorough anatomical knowledge,” [2].

Pictured: Peter (left) and Michelle (right) collaborating in a scheduled writing circle at the gross anatomy laboratory.

The course director and lead PI, Dr. Danielle Bentley, suggested that the researchers scheduled writing circles to encourage accountability and weekly constructive feedback: “Over the past two years, I have personally experienced the benefit of writing circles through the CTSI’s SOTL Writing Cohort Programs. The premise is simple – show up and write. With regularly scheduled virtual sessions, small weekly goals, and peer accountability, writing circles can help drive productivity. The additional benefit for this unique group of undergraduate writers was collaboration. They were able to share ideas, give thoughtful suggestions, and provide detailed feedback on each other’s writing”. Indeed, Peter and Michelle both found the writing circles to be beneficial for different reasons. Peter found that peer editing allowed him to be significantly more productive and overcome the challenge of over-familiarity with his work: “I agreed to do peer editing after looking at my writing over and over; it was a bit awkward at first, but it helped me get a new perspective on my writing and made me hold more accountability for getting my work done,” he recounts. On the other hand, Michelle found the most value in the focused sessions and mutual feedback which helped refine their manuscripts: “The first draft is nothing like that last draft; you have to be open to the process. It can be hard to take criticism, but being open to suggestions from your superiors and peers made the final paper so much better".

Despite the benefits of peer writing circles, the journey to publication was filled with challenges, from finding relevant literature in niche and generally under-explored topics to the meticulous process of drafting and revising their manuscripts. Peter emphasized the importance of being open to criticism and using resources wisely, while Michelle highlighted the need for an open mind and resilience in the face of feedback. Peter recounts that the research could “definitely be overwhelming; here is an artery, google it, use your resources, be open to suggestions, and be prepared to take research in directions you don’t expect”. Both researchers were surprised by the rigour of the academic publication process, and the importance of thorough feedback through extensive review cycles. This experience underscored the importance of persistence and the value of constructive criticism in refining their work. For students considering the leap into research, Peter and Michelle advise embracing the process with an open mind, being comprehensive in your investigation, and valuing feedback from peers and mentors. Peter also warns about the importance in not overworking yourself: “Balancing MCAT, [life sciences] courses, and doing this [research] all summer was really hard. You can’t be too hard on yourself, too critical, or stress too much about the small details. Some ideas may get lost in the edits, but you just have to accept it and move on,” he adds, upon reflection. The journey is demanding but immensely rewarding, offering undergraduate students a unique opportunity to contribute to the broader academic and scientific community. 

This experience, that began from a spark of curiosity, has meaningfully impacted both their academic journeys, illustrating the power of undergraduate research in shaping the future of participating students. Collectively, their message is clear: embrace the challenges, cherish the collaborative spirit, and dive into research with an open heart and mind. The narrative of Peter and Michelle underscores a pivotal lesson for the academic community: collaborative communities can be a powerful catalyst for innovation and learning, especially at the undergraduate level.

Their story serves as an inspiration for budding researchers and highlights the importance of fostering an environment where young scholars are encouraged to collaborate, share their insights, and contribute to the tapestry of scientific knowledge. As their publication journey demonstrates, when students come together, the path from inquiry to insight becomes more navigable and enriching, setting a new precedent for undergraduate research in the life sciences. 

Peter’s referenced publication, “Atypically Taut Superior Polar Splenic Artery Discovered in a Human Cadaver”, is available for view here [1]. Michelle’s referenced publication, “Discovery of an Anteriorly Deviated, Partially Ossified Xiphoid Process With a Large, Teardrop-Shaped Foramen in a Male Cadaver”, is available for view here [2].

  1. Lombardi P, Li ASR, Sue M, Bola H, Bentley DC. 2023. Atypically Taut Superior Polar Splenic Artery Discovered in a Human Cadaver. Cureus, 15(11): e49627.

  2. Sue M, Lombardi P, Li ASR, Bola H, Bentley DC. 2024. Discovery of an Anteriorly Deviated, Partially Ossified Xiphoid Process With a Large, Teardrop-Shaped Foramen in a Male Cadaver. Cureus, 16(5): e61068.



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