Inside Our Bones: 3-Dimensional MRI imaging in the classroom


Students using OsirixImagine doctors looking inside their patient’s bones, seeing each layer in order to pinpoint a problem without ever resorting to the operating table. Imagine researchers manipulating 3-D images of their subjects, breaking them down layer by layer without physical dissection. These scenarios may seem futuristic, but in reality this is cutting-edge research happening in labs and hospitals across the country. And now, it’s happening in UNCW classrooms.

Assistant Professor of biology and marine biology Raymond Danner and Lecturer of biology and marine biology Carolina Priester recently won a grant from ETEAL with supplemental funds from the Center for Teaching Excellence to implement a new technology called Osirix in their classes. With this funding, Danner and Priester purchased iPads for their students to use the Osirix software, which has a database full of three-dimensional models composed of thousands of MRI and CT images. This software helps scientists more closely study their subjects, just as it helps surgeons engage in pre-surgical planning before ever making a cut.

“We thought, ‘These tools are out there,’” said Danner, “and we knew we needed to put them in the hands of our students. We’re trying to give them specific skills to enhance their learning experience. By using this software, we’re able to pull any anatomical structures you can imagine and put them in front of students to manipulate and explore.”

Osirix offers technological insight of the brain and the entire human structure including all tissues both boney and soft. Because the models are comprised of images from actual living specimens, the level of detail students can see is far superior to digitally constructed models. Danner and Priester said that using this kind of technology not only prepares students for future jobs in scientific research and medicine, it also helps students develop their spatial thinking – a skill that is becoming increasingly recognized as a key contributor to critical thinking. Instead of guessing where something might be located on a two-dimensional drawing, students are able to physically see what they’re looking for on the three-dimensional model.

“It’s exciting being able to provide students with a new technique and a new way of thinking,” Priester said. “After some practice, they’ll be able to think in three dimensions in their minds.”

Danner is especially close to the technology and has seen its effectiveness demonstrated in his own research. He recently published a paper in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, one of the leading ornithology journals in the world, using the same MRI and CT imaging technology implemented by Osirix. Danner began the project at the Smithsonian Institution prior to working at UNCW, comparing the maze of the nasal conchae inside the nostrils of birds that live in different climates. Professional technicians took CT scans of a song sparrow to create a model, which was then used by students to create a video showing each layer of the sparrow’s head.

“With this software, students took measurements and made descriptions for parts of the sparrow we’ve never seen before,” said Danner.

In fact, when Danner shows the video of the song sparrow to his students, they will often point out interesting structures, like little bumps and spikes on the inside of the sparrow’s bill. Danner delights to tell his students that no researcher has been able to view these before, and encourages them to go out, to become scientists and explore the unknown for themselves.

Priester and Danner plan to use this technology as much as they can. From analyzing sheep’s brains to the possibility of dissecting elephants, they’re showing UNCW students how much left there is to discover, and invites them to be part of the process without ever leaving campus.

To read Danner's paper, visit The Auk's website. To view a video of one of the sparrows Danner studied, visit the Central Ornithology Publication Office's YouTube page

-- Caitlin Taylor ’18M