Student Perspective: Niall Nelligan

In this article, Niall Nelligan, winner of the 2010 Coakley Medal, reflects on the experience that he gained.

The James B Coakley Award for dissection is an honour I will cherish for life. The ‘Coakley Competition’ provides an extraordinary opportunity.  It inspires a competitor to learn, develop and perfect skills that will be useful for the rest of their careers.  The experienced of performing the precise dissecting movements, and developing techniques to expose structures without damaging them, is something that cannot be easily described. 

For me, it made the idea of surgery as a career even more appealing.  But don’t be put off from doing this competition if surgery is not your raison d’être! The knowledge of anatomy that you obtain by the constant reference to anatomy books  and the very act of dissecting helps dramatically in understanding pathological processes.  In fact it has also helped me with the clinical examinations in the later years of my degree and I’ve no doubt will be helpful for the rest of my career.

The competition itself takes place throughout the summer and until the 30th September and competitors can begin their dissection at any time during the competition period.  There are two components to the competition – the dissection and the poster - both of which are judged and the combined result forms each competitors mark.  For the duration of the competition the participants have access to the anatomy dissection room and the anatomy museum in the Health science building in Belfield from Monday to Friday.  On a side note I would suggest that those participating in the competition do NOT wait until September to start the dissection unless absolutely necessary.  The beginning of term will result in very limited access to the dissection lab for participants as the anatomy practical classes will have priority.

After all applications have been submitted for the competition, the students chosen to compete are notified. On a particular date in early May, a meeting is held at the dissection room and the distribution of the projects takes place. There are a great variety of projects (from neck dissection to foot dissection) and they are allocated rather than chosen by the participants.

The projects themselves are completely open to interpretation, and as such it is very much up to each competitor how they approach the project. 

Each upper and lower limb in the competition was shared between two people, with a ‘dividing line’ agreed upon for each specimen by those performing the dissection to ensure that there was no interference with the other persons work... For example my project was the ‘muscles of the thigh’ and on the same lower limb another participant was given the ‘muscles of the leg’. A question often asked is how long it takes to do the dissection... for me, once my goals were determined and my plan was done up, I spent approx. 4-5 weeks dissecting on a regular basis (in between work and other commitments) between August and September.

There was great variety in the approaches taken by participants to the competition.  Many started their dissection late in August.  It is important though that whatever approach you take that you give adequate time for both the dissection and the poster as both count towards your total mark. 

In my opinion the preparation for the dissection is the key to success... Before ever picking up a scalpel, I set out my goals that I wanted to achieve from the project and then made out a plan for how I would carry each of them out.  This involved a fair bit of reading, and in particular making many visits to the anatomy museum to get an idea of the level of detail that was needed to be displayed.  Netter’s atlas of anatomy was a massive help in visualising the structures and establishing the order in which I would meet them in my dissection.

It is important to note that the time spent dissecting was not entirely smooth sailing.  In the beginning it took a while to develop and master techniques using ALL the equipment in the dissection kit to avoid damaging structures.  However, once I got to grip with the techniques and modified them accordingly when required, the dissection progressed without any major problems.  Something I would recommend to all Medicine/physiotherapy/radiography students (though in particular those hoping to do the Coakley) is to work on techniques when they are doing their dissections in anatomy practicals and to ask for advice on various techniques from the demonstrators.  As it does take quite some time to come up with techniques yourself, as I learnt from experience.

Something I believe should be mentioned is the atmosphere during the competition.  While always respectful, it was always upbeat. As more and more of the participants arrived to take on the dissection challenge there was a definite sense of comradery as people fed off each other’s enthusiasm.  Something I suspect contributed enormously to the exceptionally high standard on display in this year’s competition.

Before I finish, I would like to express my thanks to all the technical staff for all their help, support and good humour throughout the competition.  My thanks also to all the Staff of the anatomy department, to those who judged and to all who made this competition possible.  Finally, I would like to thank all the participants of the James B Coakley Dissection competition whose incredible dissections provided motivation for me to raise my standard of dissection to a level I didn’t think possible in order to compete with you all.

Niall Nelligan

Winner of James B Coakley Medal for Dissection 2009/2010

James B Coakley was a professor of Anatomy in University College Dublin and Professor & Head of the Department of Human Anatomy from 1962 – 1988.  To honour his distinguished career and dedication to anatomy teaching the Coakley Medal is awarded for the best dissection of a given body part.