See One, Do One, Teach One: Whalen wins award for revolutionizing veterinary anatomy

Since Dr. Lawrence (Ray) Whalen joined CSU’s veterinary faculty in 1982, his unconventional approach to teaching and learning has improved anatomy education and animal welfare in veterinary schools worldwide. On Sept. 14, 2019, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association presented Whalen with its the CVMA Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his enduring commitment to students and animals.

Kelsey Dobesh and Ray Whalen at CVMBS awards
Veterinary student Kelsey Dobesh nominated Dr. Lawrence (Ray) Whalen for the CVMA Distinguished Service Award because he’s been committed to inspiring and engaging veterinary students at CSU since 1982. Her parents, Kathy and Mike Dobesh, also studied with Whalen and wrote letters of support. (CVMA photo)

Adversity Inspires Innovation

“I’m a dyslexic. When I was young, they didn’t have a word for dyslexia or an approach for handling it so I got through school by brute force,” Whalen says. “Words and memorization are difficult for me. I am very visual and object-oriented. Things that I could see and touch and manipulate were easy.”

Whalen turned adversity into the foundation of a new style of anatomy instruction. He earned his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and a Ph.D. in Comparative Pathology from the University of California, Davis. By the time he arrived at CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, he believed that case-based learning was the best way to teach neurobiology to veterinary students. He began recording neurology cases at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital with 16-millimeter film. Whalen now has more than 1,000 recorded case videos. He uses about 100 cases to teach neuroanatomy to first-year veterinary students. Every week, his students work through multiple cases, including videos, images, and notes, with the goal of teaching clinical reasoning.

“I always have in my heart and mind what I want them to do as clinicians,” Whalen says. “How do you take these data from your patients and put them together in a way that lets you pinpoint the source of the problem? They have to be able to reason through the process and provide me with an explanation of how they got there.”

Veterinary student Kelsey Dobesh nominated Whalen for the CVMA Distinguished Service Award because his teaching style was a transformative experience during the first year of veterinary school.

“We all breathed a sigh of relief when we waked into Dr. Whalen’s class because we knew our day was going to get better,” Dobesh says. “Learning was going to be fun and effortless. He’s engaging. He walks up and down the aisles. He looks you in the eye. He’s just the best of the best.”

Anatomy Goes Virtual

Whalen spent his summers on his aunt’s farm in Northern California near a Buddhist commune. He tries to live by the Buddhist principle of Ahimsa, or kindness and non-violence towards all living things, but his profession challenged his ethical beliefs.

“When I came to CSU, we were getting canine cadavers from the greyhound racing industry,” Whalen recalls. “I said we can’t participate in a process that kills so many animals. We have a moral obligation to our students.”

Ray Whalen in lab
Dr. Lawrence (Ray) Whalen attributes the ongoing success of the anatomy program to three things: a willingness to embrace change; outstanding colleagues; and the students. He says teaching is “a privilege and a responsibility.” (CVMBS photo)

Whalen, with the assistance of Dr. Bernard Rollin, helped the veterinary school make a profound institutional change from using purpose-euthanized animals to only using animals that have been euthanized by the humane society because of untreatable medical or behavioral problems. However, the practice of breeding and euthanizing animals for anatomy was still widespread around the world, particularly in countries with limited access to refrigeration.

“That was not an adequate life for those animals,” Whalen says. “Cadaver dissection is an essential part of veterinary education, but we can provide as much care and respect as possible to the animals we use and get the full measure from their loss of life.”

In 1999, Whalen began the Virtual Canine Anatomy program with the goal of reducing animal euthanasia worldwide while improving anatomy instruction. Whalen teamed up with Dr. Trent Gall and other veterinary students to create an interactive canine anatomy software program. With generous funding from CVMBS, the DVM Class of 2021, Alternatives Research and Development Foundation, and the CVBMS College Research Council USDA Experiment Station grant program, Whalen’s team expanded the Virtual Animal Anatomy suite to include equine, feline, and bovine modules. Support from ARDF also allowed the VCA to be available online without fees from 2013 to 2018. During that time, the site was visited more than 1 million times by users from 195 countries.

Now that Dr. Whalen has entered transitional retirement, Dr. Christianne Magee leads the Virtual Veterinary Educational Tools team. In 2019, Virtual Animal Anatomy became commercially available as a subscription service to other anatomy programs. Dr. Magee says virtual veterinary tools make anatomy education more humane, more ethical, and more effective.

“To teach professional veterinary medicine we have to use cadavers at some point in our program because eventually our students are going to be working on live animals,” Magee says. “We have to teach them about anatomical variation and working with a real specimen, but the more we can do virtually the more we can supplement that cadaver-based learning. They can see one, do one, teach one.”

Whalen attributes the ongoing success of the anatomy program to three things: a willingness to embrace change; outstanding colleagues; and the students. “The most important thing about my job here is the students. We select for the very best, so they’ve wanted to do this most of their lives, they’ve worked hard to get here, and they’re intellectually curious,” Whalen says. “Before every lecture, I have to sit and remember why I teach, what’s expected of me, and what a privilege it is to stand in front of these students who have worked their whole lives to be here. A privilege and a responsibility.”