Rowan, medical school take physician education virtual

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Intricate swirls of color — a patient’s blood, a sample of tissue — magnified under microscopes help students at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU) learn some important fundamentals in the histopathology and diagnosis of  diseases.

Intricate swirls of color — a patient’s blood, a sample of tissue — magnified under microscopes help students at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU) learn some important fundamentals in the histopathology and diagnosis of  diseases.

That’s probably not a big revelation for anyone involved in medical education, but there is a difference at CMSRU: the students soon will have a chance to use a computer-based virtual microscope instead of one crafted of metal.

The virtual microscope springs from a partnership between a CMSRU physician-professor and a professor and students in the Computer Science Department at Rowan University, one of CMSRU’s founding partners.

Dr. Adrian Rusu,  a professor of computer science from Rowan’s main campus, worked on the project with Dr. Hector Lopez, a CMSRU associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences.

“I was interested in pursuing scholarly activities and thinking of working on computer-based modules for the medical students,” Lopez said. “Those will be interactive learning tools for students to learn in their own time.”

Rusu had reached out to the medical school last fall to see if professors there had any projects they wanted to pursue. Lopez replied with his project and became a real-world customer for Rusu’s students.

Five of Rusu's students developed the virtual microscope last fall in his Software Engineering course, in which students take a project from beginning until a final, usable version. They spent extensive time interviewing and working with Lopez.

What they developed, Lopez and Rusu said, is a tool that features software that enables first- and second-year medical students to navigate through a series of digital slides of tissue from the human body, whether stomach, liver or blood.

Students can visit the virtual microscope website to study tissues their professors have uploaded — and labeled as desired — studying the material during lab exercises or on their own time.

Faculty can add questions to the slides with arrows pointing, for instance, to a spot on a liver cell that students need to evaluate. And, Rusu’s team developed tools where students can self-assess their findings and email their analysis to their professors for review. Professors can constantly upload new slides or remove existing ones.

“This provides more flexibility for the study of histology,” Lopez said.

Lopez said similar, but not exact, products exist, but they are very expensive. The Rowan virtual microscope offers added features over most, he added. This semester the Rowan-CMSRU team is tweaking the system, adding some features and modifying assessment tools before using it with medical school students. Eventually, they may try to market the virtual microscope.

“It’s very good. It’s incredible,” said Lopez. “It’s something with a few touches will be a very powerful tool to identify and learn histological sections, both normal and abnormal.”

Rusu said the virtual microscope also represents an important collaboration between Rowan and CMSRU personnel that benefits both computer science and medical students.

“It is much more useful for computer science students to work on a real-world project rather than a class project,” said Rusu, who has previously initiated innovative collaborations with industry, government, academia and high schools. “I am not aware of any other example where we have professors from different disciplines helping each other like this. Plus, this project helps students in both places. I think that’s quite unusual,” Rusu said.

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