Anatomists are biological scientists who study the structure of living things. Most anatomists are biomedical researchers and educators focusing on human anatomical form and function. Many specialize in areas such as biological imaging, cell biology, genetics, molecular development, endocrinology (study of the glands that produce hormones), histology (study of tissues), neuro-science, forensics, microscopy, and physical anthropology (study of the physical characteristics, variability, and evolution of the human organism).
Most anatomists work in colleges, universities, or medical centers. They usually teach and do research. They help train scientists, as well as physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, and other workers in the health field. Some work for government agencies or for medical and scientific publishing firms. Others are employed by private companies, such as firms that make artificial limbs or organs.
Although the work of anatomists varies widely, nearly all spend some time in laboratories studying the structures of plant or animal species. Anatomists may do basic research to further our knowledge about organisms in general. They may also do applied research to solve specific problems. The two kinds of research often overlap.
Anatomists often observe and dissect the large organs of plants and animals. They use microscopes and computers to examine smaller units, such as small organs, tissues, and cells. They also use special techniques to prepare their samples. Because their field is so broad, anatomists need to have some knowledge of other fields such as embryology, neurology, biomedical engineering, genetics, and pathology. They often work with experts in these fields. Anatomists are sometimes assisted by biological technicians.
Some anatomists specialize in the study of the anatomy of plant forms. These botanists concentrate on the internal structure of plants and the development of the various plant parts, such as stems, leaves, and flowers. They also study smaller units, such as plant cells and tissues.
Other anatomists concentrate on the anatomy of animals. They may be zoologists, veterinarians, or physicians. Some of these scientists do basic studies of the structures of animal life. Others make direct applications of anatomical principles to solve specific problems in a human or an animal. Anatomists have made significant contributions to medicine, ranging from the identification of neurons to the discovery of vitamin E. In the field of cytology, or the study of cells, anatomists have developed new techniques for studying samples of living material. They have also helped develop cinematography as a tool for research and teaching in biology.
Anatomy is a cornerstone of medicine. The work of anatomists will be vital in the development of artificial organs, such as kidneys and hearts, and in the transplantation of donated organs. Such varied fields as plastic surgery, space medicine, and environmental health will depend on the discoveries of anatomists.
Education and Training Requirements
You generally need an advanced degree to become an anatomist. In college you should major in premedicine, biology, chemistry, or a related field and take a variety of courses in the biological, physical, and behavioral sciences. With a bachelor's degree you may be able to get a job as a biological technician, but your opportunities for advancement will be limited. If you have a master's degree in anatomy or a related field, you may be able to get a job in teaching or applied research, or in a field such as medical publishing. You usually need a doctoral degree to get a research and teaching position at a university or medical school.
Because anatomy is a broad field, you can get your specialized training in anatomy in one of three areas—biology, veterinary medicine, or medicine. Whichever area you choose, however, you are likely to spend at least eight years as a student after high school. Some anatomists get both a doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree and a doctoral (Ph.D.) degree. To keep up with new developments in anatomy and related fields, anatomists must continue to study throughout their careers.
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