Tyler Dunn on abnormality versus difference and teaching through anatomy

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Tyler Dunn, Ph.D., M.S, RPA, assistant professor in the OHSU Anatomical Sciences Education Center, brings together training in anatomy, forensic anthropology and human paleontology to examine human beings in their physical and social contexts. We sat down to talk about his background, his research and his teaching.

What questions drive your research?

The stories bones tell us really interest me. Fundamentally, I am trying to understand the people of the past as individuals in their context, whether that’s social or archeological or biological.

Tyler Dunn, Ph.D.,registered professional archaeologist, wearing flannel flannel shirt and headlamp, emerges from a pit in the limestone cave Tam Pà Ling in Laos.
Tyler Dunn, Ph.D., M.S., RPA (Registered Professional Archaeologist), emerges from an excavation pit. (Courtesy photo)

The questions that I am most interested in — both in anatomy and paleontology, the study of fossil animals and plants — tend to fall along the dichotomy of what is pathology, or abnormality, and what is variation.

In medical contexts and in anatomical contexts, we have a history of presuming that a difference is a pathology, an abnormality, or a disease. In this, I include racialization of certain bodies, as well as the ways we’ve approached neurodiversity, queerness, and other differences we no longer see as faulty or pathological.

I like to turn that approach to difference on its head, and to first consider whether a difference is perhaps a variation. While this framework is important in my own work in the past, I also like to spur that question in my students. It’s important to apply a critical lens in anatomy and medicine and science. The application of critical theory, queer theory and anti-racist thinking has advanced both science and medicine in important ways and has the potential to do much more.

Before my doctorate in biological anthropology, I earned a master’s in forensic anthropology — I was interested in understanding people from their skeletons in forensic contexts, so victims of crime or identification of remains.

I was a fellow with the United States Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to recover American military personnel listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from designated past foreign conflicts. My work was to help recover and identify individuals who died and were still missing or unidentified. In that process — of identifying individuals who died in conflict — I really began thinking about what individuals can tell us about our collective or population-level history, which led me to think particularly about the differences between human variation, difference and pathology.

What research are you conducting now?

An ongoing project I’m involved with is an excavation site in Laos. I first joined a team there in 2014, so almost 10 years. We recently published a paper on our findings from this site, Tam Pà Ling cave, that confirm our species was present in Southeast Asia 68,000 to 86,000 years ago.

The date of this individual, which is 10,000 years earlier than humans were known to be in this area, was based on a tibia bone. This distinct population was determined based on cranial fragments that present a picture of human variation that we hadn’t seen in the area. These findings have implications for understanding how people arrived in this region of the world and how we migrated to novel environments.

These findings raised a number of questions, which is the beauty of science — rarely do we find answers that don’t bring new questions.

We now know there were many different populations in this region, which is very exciting — now we can start talking about another whole group of people that are potentially in the same region at the same time.

These populations are modern. We may not recognize them as different at all. They could look like modern humans, although probably smaller. We may not necessarily have looked very different from each other. This is the kind of finding that is rich for discussions about variation, difference and pathology. I think it’s important for us to take every opportunity to learn, discuss and teach about ways of approaching difference — and by extension, inclusion.

What’s your role at OHSU?

I’m on the anatomy faculty and I support anatomy education in a number of programs. Since I joined OHSU about nine months ago, my teaching has included Anatomy for Radiation Therapy, Foundations of Medical Anatomy in the School of Medicine, Foundations of Clinical Anatomy for the Physician Assistant program and anatomy for the Wy’East Postbaccalaureate Program.

My training and my intersecting interests led to scholarship and teaching in anatomy generally, and in my previous position, I also taught courses like Structural Violence in Medicine, and What is Race: Racialization in Science and Medicine.

“I find students to be very eager to think through the relationship of the body, health and culture.”

Sometimes, in a medical or anatomical context, difference is presented as pathological, as a defect. I always question whether a difference is pathological or whether it is a normal part of human variation and the human experience. I’ve found students to be very eager to think through issues of difference, and about the relationship of the body to social contexts.

Whether the learners in my courses are studying medicine or nursing or are in the physician assistant program, critical thinking and analytical skills will become more important in their professional lives than memorization. My job as a teacher is not only to teach critical thinking, but to teach them to value that skill. Placing anatomy, the body and health in a cultural context is central to that.

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