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Dissecting the BioDigital Human: A 3D Anatomy Lesson

iPads in hand, students at NYU's School of Medicine are taking "Anatomy 2.0."

iPads in hand (carefully sealed in Ziploc bags), students at New York University's School of Medicine are taking "Anatomy 2.0."

3D medical imaging software allows users to navigate the ins and outs of the human body, toggling various systems and conditions on and off -- you can take it for a spin here. Emon Hassan, a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in New York City, goes inside the lab course at NYU's School of Medicine where human cadavers and 3D glasses are course materials, and faculty and students weigh in on the benefits of supplementing a hands-on education with virtual tools. Hassan discusses the making of the film in an interview below.

The Atlantic: How did you find this story and decide to tell it? 

Emon Hassan: I have been working on a photo essay project since November of 2011 that involved anatomy students. The 3D imaging system was announced during an anatomy lecture and I learned the 3D imaging system would soon become a part of student's work at the anatomy lab. This piqued my curiosity and I wanted to learn more about the technology. 

This anatomy course seems representative of education's evolution from textbooks to interactive digital media. Did you get the sense that teachers and students were generally positive about the shift, or were there any skeptics? 

The people I've interviewed are mostly positive and enthusiastic about this technology. If I surveyed more students and faculty I might encounter differing opinions. Of course, that's just an assumption on my part. It was interesting to note that while students and faculty each approached the same technology with different goals in mind, they did agree that the 3D imaging system, supplemented with iPad, allowed them a broader palette to explore, personalize and customize their learning and teaching experience. However, most point out that the technology is ideal for enhancing and not replacing the learning experience one has from dissecting actual cadavers. 

We live in a time that demands our daily experiences also have virtual interaction options with share features. What I've gathered from both the faculty and students is that this technology removes a lot of clutter from their work in the lab and allows them to focus. I sensed an optimism towards the technology because they spoke more about what the technology can do for their work as opposed to what it couldn't do. In essence: growth opportunities vs. shortcomings.

What are some of the challenges of making documentaries about medicine and technology like this?

The primary challenge for me was to make a documentary that would appeal to the tech community, the medical community, and still be of interest to the general public. I'm not saying that documentaries about technology and medicine should be done with that in mind but in this case I felt it was appropriate because in the end, to me, it is a story about how technology plays a part in a human story in a medical setting. Of course, that revelation only emerged after the first version was edited. I don’t like over researching a project I’m about to do for fear of not asking the most obvious questions that are the building blocks of a good story. I'm not well versed in either tech speak or medical speak so the goal of this project was to get a basic foundational understanding of the technology itself and how it effects the tradition and process of anatomy lab work.

In technology stories I believe the answers to the why questions are much more interesting and revealing than the who, what, where, and how questions. This can be a challenge when dealing with interviewees or experts who are more comfortable relaying quantifiable information using industry jargon or terminology. Going into Anatomy Lab 2.0, the only thing I knew was the final intended length of the piece and that meant having only enough time to do broad strokes.

What's next for you?

I have several more short documentaries in various stages of production that are part of this medical technology series. Also, I’m currently editing the second episode of a fictional supernatural/mystery web series, The Third. I create and produce The Third as well as produce short documentaries for my blog, Guitarkadia. A longer-term project I’ve been working on is editing photographs from a recent trip to Bangladesh. I returned there after 16 years in New York. 

I consider myself to be a New Yorker and what ties 90 percent of my work together in fiction and non-fiction -- photography or video -- is New York City. The city's history, its mysteries, its mix of people and the unusual connection it has to the rest of the world fascinates me to no end. 

Images courtesy BioDigital and Emon Hassan.  

For more work by Emon Hassan, visit