It’s probably not the sort of thing one says in polite company, but I really like doing dissections in biology lab. It brings out the little kid in me, that part that loves to take things apart and see how they work, that finds the squishy insides of the animal to be both totally gross and totally fascinating at the same time.

The first dissection I did was in high school freshman biology. We studied frog anatomy, and the day before the dissection we were charged with observing “external characteristics.” This basically meant that right before we sliced into our specimens, we were given an entire lab period to bond with our frogs. One of my friends couldn’t take it and spirited her frog away by stashing it in the front pocket of her backpack. We released him into the creek behind the school; I have no idea if the environment there was at all suitable.

I expected to have a real problem with the actual dissection. It just didn’t seem like something I should enjoy. The frogs had their brains (literally) scrambled beforehand, meaning that their hearts were still beating when we opened them up. My group was made up of two other girls, both very tentative about the whole process, so I ended up taking charge somewhat against my will. I remember cutting my frog open very carefully and watching his heart beat inside of his spread rib cage. I was amazed. I knew that hearts beat, but I had never envisioned how violent it was; this ball of muscle twisting and writhing just behind a few layers of muscle and bone.

Since then I’ve always claimed to love dissections, and couldn’t wait to start cutting. We worked our way up slowly; first an earthworm, then a crayfish and an enormous cricket, then a squid and a clam. Of course the day we started on the fetal pig, which I had been looking forward to since we first went over the syllabus, I was in the midst of my aforementioned plague and spent most of the lab feeling nauseous from the stench of formaldehyde and trying not to cough on our specimen. It probably didn’t help that we were looking at the digestive system, which, even in a fetal pig, involves a lot of organs filled with fluids you would rather not contemplate too closely.

This week we tackled the circulatory and respiratory systems. Having moved out of the gunkier areas of the body and feeling more energetic, I recalled why I loved dissections so much. The heart lay in the center of the pig’s chest, shiny and strong; not beating in this case, but impressive nonetheless. The lungs weren’t fully formed, but it was easy to  see each individual lobe as it curled almost protectively around the heart. Ironically one of the things that gave me the biggest thrill was pulling back the connective tissue around the trachea and larynx; I was stupidly suprised to find that they looked just like the pictures.

Looking inside a living organism, particularly one as similar to humans as a fetal pig, feels special to me. I always imagine that pictures and diagrams are simplistic; a rough estimate representing a non-existent every-man. It surprises me to realize that it all actually looks like that when you get inside. The liver really is smooth and rounded, the aorta really does loop up over the top of the heart, the trachea really does look like rings stacked on top of one another. It’s a cliche, but inside we really aren’t so different after all.

We have one more biology lab before we’re done (I think a sheep’s brain might be involved). I’m not going to miss it exactly, but I will say that I’m not dreading cadaver lab in med school one bit.