This post is not for the squeamish (yeah, embryology is a bit… fascinating and horrifying at the same time)! Also, a word of warning- mild language quoted ahead! Read at your own risk. And if you do read, please remember I’m quoting my embryology professor, so it’s not really my own language.
Anyway! Embryology! This was the newest thing I studied in med school so far. I mean, yes Anatomy and Physiology and Biochemistry all sounds very new and interesting but the basics of each of these subjects has already been touched in high school and pre-medical classes. Embryology was that one subject that no one had ever read up on before (I’m not talking about super curious people who decide to do some extra reading on their own to find out the origin of their existence). (I have a feeling you guys are about to fall into this category by accident).
We’ve had five sessions of Embryology in this module of “the cell” and these five sessions basically covered the first eight weeks of development. So yes, we went through meiosis and maturation of germ cells, the menstrual cycle and the events of fertilization- stuff repeated from high school. And that’s where things suddenly picked up pace.
The newly formed zygote starts undergoing cleavage, then it becomes a morula, then it becomes a blastocyst when the zona pellucida has disintegrated and this is called hatching and then the blastocyst implants in the uterine wall and suddenly there’s a bunch of cells that are differentiating and you have the cytotrophoblasts and the syncytiotrophoblasts (sin see shi oh tro fo blast) which form the primary villi, literally digesting maternal tissues which are full of lipids and glycogen, and all this digested material is used to supply the blastocyst which is also divided into the embryoblast which gives rise to… (I’ll stop here)
The first time I read this, I had no idea what was going on, or how to pronounce the various names. I was also panicking about how I was going to remember this (but I typed the above with ease so I’ve got it memorized I guess). After the first two sessions, I realized that as I kept on going, the things started fitting together themselves- and that’s when I actually started thinking about what I was studying.
“You used to be a morula” I tell my friend.
“You digested your mom’s decidual cells layer” is the reply I get.
“Glycogen and lipid rich, I couldn’t help it” I shrugged.
It was all fun and games at the start because really, you can’t associate a microscopic blastocyst which was pretty much parasitic with a living, breathing human who now has a soul and feelings. But as we moved on to see how the oropharangeal membrane was a marker for what would be the mouth, the primitive streak to create our mesoderm (muscles, bones) as well as the notochord and neural tube to become the spinal cord and the somites to create the vertebrae in our back, the text started carrying a distinct element of something dark and terrifying.
“The neural tube starts closing up from the middle of the embryo” narrates the textbook. “Oh, by the way, if the neural tube fails to close, you have a spinal condition known as ____”
(I don’t remember the name of the condition, also I don’t want to open the book or google it because the condition comes up with A LOT of gruesome pictures of poor little babies with their spinal cord sort of bulging out of an opening in their backs)
Now, as amazing as it is finding out that your spinal cord and vertebrae and mesoderm and everything comes out one by one in this amazing sequence that actually makes sense, and all of this out of a structure smaller than the nail on your pinkie, isn’t it frightening thinking about what could go wrong in such a delicate little thing that doesn’t even look remotely like a human yet? (It doesn’t help when the text is consistently accentuated with little blue boxes containing clinical conditions and sometimes accompanied by pictures).
Studying embryology made me realize how infinitely blessed I am to have a perfect body- although this is no personal feat of mine. If any one thing had gone wrong at such an early stage, I would have been messed up for life and it would never have been in my control to start with.
The lesson here? Be grateful of the body you have. Stop standing in front of the mirror wishing you were thinner or had better facial features because honestly, you are made absolutely amazing just the way you were- you just haven’t realized how precious it is because you don’t know the hard work and the perfection and the whole delicate procedure that went into shaping you out of one cell. One cell. And that one cell went through so much to give a living, breathing person sitting and reading this post.
Do you even realize how amazing this is- you are made of millions of cells and they have different functions and they look different and they all make this one person who is intelligent, has a personality, has a life and responsibilities and is an individual with a soul and you’re a human. You’ve made it so far- you’re definitely worth way more and you need to aim higher because honestly, if you could come out from one cell, you can do way more. Way more.
Anyway, that’s it for my personal rambling on embryology. I’m going to describe my Embryology teacher.
He seems like a really nice fatherly sort of person, but he won’t stand a bit of talking in class. He’ll pause the lecture and start what I call a mini-lecture. These mini lectures span from modern education, to billboards, to profanity, to SnapChat.
“Schools today don’t teach their kids any manners- they exist simply to milk money” is a statement made after a student was caught at doing what he does best- talking to his neighbor. The statement continues- “Coming to this prestigious institute wasn’t going to make you a better human being than you are. We can polish you, but you know. We don’t like to keep spoiled fruit in the basket. Can we compare humans to fruits? Hm?”
“Girls need to dress modestly if they want to be respected because first of all, you need to respect yourself” he said, apparently starting from something the author did not see or find out about. “And when you speak to boys, you need to squish any silly thoughts they have in their heads. See the women on the billboards- do you think anyone respects them? Or do they respect themselves?”
“Kids today spew a lot of foul words. You know, I hear this word in the hallways all the time- you know this word? It’s called ess ech ai tee. Do you even know what this word means?” is the question put forward to the class suddenly between the lecture. “No? Let me tell you- you know about cattle manure? The faeces of the cattle? It used to be stored in ships, high above the floor so that the stench wouldn’t get stuck in the vessel. So you know what the boxes used to say? ‘Store High In Transit’ and that’s where your precious ess ech ai tee comes from. Yes? And you all have this word incorporated into your language, and you know how? You watch all these Western movies where actors are paid use these words so they become a part of your language, so you end up saying ess ech ai tee instead of Astaghfirullah!” (yes, he said “ess ech ai tee” every time except once)
“You guys know what is SnapChat?” is the next question right after the mini lecture about profanity. “SnapChat, yes? The thing where you send pictures and they get deleted? One of my students added me on SnapChat and I said okay. But apparently her picture didn’t get deleted and I saw this picture of an embryology book with two very foul words written on it. Dash this dash? I was so sad, I didn’t expect this sort of behavior from my students- and to think a girl would use such foul language! I was really sad. Anyway- it doesn’t matter. Back to the lecture”
He’s a really good teacher though- I went to him with my friend a few days after his lecture and he was really enthusiastic about helping- he tried explaining from the textbook, then took out his lecture slides and then went through the animation video to help clear everything up. He even offered to let us see an actual embryo he had so we could get an idea of what was going on.
Every time he goes on one of his mini lectures, I feel a bit sad though. He always brings up some little bitter truth in every session and makes you think twice about repeating your mistake again. Unfortunately, the kids in my class love giving him an excuse to break his lecture and start his soliloquies.
I’ve been told this is all we’ll study in first year and that we won’t see this professor for a few months or so now. But these embryology sessions have been pretty interesting and I really liked them (now that they’re over, that is. While they were happening, I was mostly in a state of panic).