Dr. Elena Cunningham uses plastinated head and neck slices to help
first-year student Andrew Gutierrez learn cranial structures.
Dr. Cunningham on primate patrol in Venezuela.
An Unusual Convergence of Career Paths
Dr. Elena Cunninghamís dual careers teaching head and neck anatomy and studying monkey behavior in South American forests seem, at first, to be unrelated.
But Dr. Cunningham, who joined NYUCD in the fall of 2004 as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology, says both involve questioning established views on cognition.
As an instructor in the non-dissection anatomy curriculum at
NYU that uses plastinated cadaver specimens, she has found herself challenging commonly held beliefs about how students learn the bodyís structures.
"The prevailing view has been that you learn from the outside in, peeling back tissue layer by layer and dissecting it into sections to uncover the important structures," she says.
"But within the new curriculum, students work with pre-dissected specimens and slices of the head and neck preserved with reactive polymers in a process known as plastination, and Iíve come to believe that doing away with laborious dissections leaves students with more time to identify and remember the bodyís structures."
Before coming to NYUCD, Dr. Cunningham taught anatomy at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and Weill Medical College of Cornell University in Manhattan. She holds graduate degrees in anthropology, earning an MA from Hunter College and a PhD from the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of
New York. It is common for anthropologists, who are trained in the physical development of humans, to teach anatomy.
Studying human development led to a parallel interest in researching monkeys because "the best way to make inferences about humans is to look broadly at trends within the primate order." Just as she questions established beliefs about human cognition and the study of anatomy, Dr. Cunningham also seeks to challenge long-held views on monkey cognition, spending time outside of the anatomy laboratory countering a widespread conviction that monkeys, who forage for berries, insects, and other food sources in groups ranging from about 30 to several hundred, choose feeding sites based solely on the locationís proximity to their habitat. Instead, she argues that they employ a more complex set of social and ecological factors in deciding where to find food, a hypothesis she developed during several visits to their rainforest habitats over the past decade, with more trips planned during future breaks in the academic calendar.
"On one visit to the Venezuelan forest, I observed a group of monkeys abandon a nearby feeding site after the scarcity of food there led to fights among group members. The monkeys then traveled a considerable distance, passing up other nearby food resources until they found a site farther away with enough food for everyone. The extra distance traveled was a small price to pay, as it allowed the monkeys to maintain group harmony and remain unified in the search for food that often leads rival groups of monkeys to clash. Moreover, the groupís leaders ó those strong enough to dominate food gathering at any location ó made what appears to have been a decision to forego their own instant gratification by taking the group to a distant feeding site in order to ensure its cohesion. Their decision to travel was a process that weighed both social and ecological factors."
On a broader scale, Dr. Cunninghamís findings are another indication of the role that cognitive development has played in the ability of advanced primates, including humans, to form cohesive groups. She has published her findings on primate behavior in the American
Journal of Physical Anthropology,
the American Journal of Primatology, and Folia Primatologica.