Marissa Spencer, board-certified pathologists’ assistant, joined the Tulane Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Faculty in August as an Instructor. Marissa has bachelor’s degrees in forensic science and biology from the University of New Haven and a master’s degree in pathologists’ assistant studies from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Marissa has experience in surgical and autopsy pathology, as well as leadership and management experience as a previous supervisor of autopsy and surgical pathology. Marissa is passionate about education. She has taught an introduction to anatomic pathology course and a basic histology course as an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven, and has taught pathology residents, PA students, and medical students in both surgical and autopsy pathology. Marissa is also passionate about advocating for the pathologists’ assistant profession. She serves as the External Marketing Subcommittee Chair for the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA), through which she is able to travel to various conferences, write articles, and educate others about the pathologists’ assistant profession. At Tulane, Marissa will be teaching in both didactic and clinical settings for our pathologists’ assistant program, residency program, graduate programs, as well as grossing and performing autopsies and intraoperative consultations.
We wanted to get to know more about Marissa, so here are some fun questions that Marissa answered for us. We can’t wait to continue to get to know Marissa more and learn from her!
What made you decide to become a pathologists’ assistant?
When I was in undergrad I was first exposed to the PA profession when I had a professor who was a PA teach a forensic pathology course. I immediately knew that rather than becoming a medical examiner (which was my plan at the time) that being a PA seemed like a better fit for me - I was more interested in grossing and autopsy than I was looking at slides.
What do you love the most about pathology?
I really love that we are behind the scenes health care professionals. The work we do is so critical for patient care but is not really understood by those outside of our profession. I enjoy knowing the value of the work we provide, as well as the opportunity to expose and educate others about it.
Is there a particular case or specimen type that stands out to you as your favorite or most memorable? How about least favorite?
I have a hard time saying an overall favorite because I love so many specimens! I love grossing as well as anatomy so larger, complex specimens are the most fun to me. If I had to choose I would have to pick whipples, bladders, and breast specimens. For benign specimens, I love gallbladders because I have a serious obsession with gallstones. I love the crystalized ones that almost resemble geodes! If I really have to choose a least favorite I would say sebaceous skin cysts.
What do you hope to bring to Tulane’s program?
I hope that my passion for pathology, anatomy, and education allows for students to be engaged and enthusiastic. I get so excited talking about anatomy, pathology, and patient care - I hope to get the students equally as enthused! Working at multiple institutions and in different roles over the years has allowed me to learn different ways of approaching grossing and handling specimens, as well as other aspects of the PA profession like management and teaching. Sharing those experiences in conjunction with the experiences of the other faculty members will provide a wider variety of information to our students as to what our profession is all about.
What is a fun fact about yourself?
I have been to 43 of the 50 states in the US!
What’s been the biggest adjustment from Connecticut to New Orleans so far?
I have been fortunate to live coast to coast and experience different lifestyles the United States has to offer, so adjusting to a new region has thankfully not been difficult. The one big adjustment so far has been recovering from hurricane Ida and knowing that hurricanes like Ida can and will happen again during my time here. Ensuring my family and I are fully prepared for storms like that in the future is really important and something we did not have to do in Connecticut, as hurricanes are definitely not as frequent and not as aggressive there.
Favorite movie? Color? Type of music?
My favorite movies are “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Bad Teacher”. I love the colors green and gray and most genres of music! But these days I listen to true crime podcasts more often than I do the radio.
Do you have any pets?
I have three pets! I have a French Bulldog named Autumn, an Icelandic Sheepdog/Collie mix named Bailey, and a tabby cat named Cheddar!
Anything else you want us/whoever reads the blog to know about you?
Pathology is a critical part of medicine and is frequently misunderstood and underappreciated because it is not patient facing. Being able to expose students (and those who want to learn outside of the classroom) to anatomic pathology and get them interested and excited about it makes me beam with happiness! I am so excited to be here and share my experiences, knowledge, and passion with the future of our profession! I am proud to be a member of the Tulane Department of Pathology and look forward to getting to know all of you!
One thing about this program is that our schedules vary by week, so it doesn’t feel monotonous, which means there isn’t a set schedule to walk through for a blog post. Some weeks we have guest lecturers, some weeks we have exams and each of us rotates through the gross room individually at different times and days each week.
Class typically starts around 9. Our two lecture based classes are mechanisms of disease (MOD) and advanced surgical pathology techniques. In MOD we learn about the pathogenesis of the disease, how it correlates to our previous knowledge of normal anatomy, histological features, embryological development and physiology. In surg path, we learn about how a specimen would grossly present, why we would receive the specimen as a PA and how to gross it. One of the really helpful things about our course load is that the block that we’re in for MOD is aligned with whatever we are doing in surg path, so it really feels like one fluent course rather than 2 different ones. While the lecture material can be really dense and there are a lot of slides to cover, Sarah and Natalie keep their lectures interesting and engaging. We are typically out of class by noon. At Tulane they really stress the importance of having a balance. This is nice because it gives us time to explore everything there is to do in New Orleans. It definitely requires us to be good at time management, because with the amount of material we go through a day it is so easy to fall behind.
Typically on Fridays we have a seminar class. Seminar is a discussion based class. This class involves discussions and assignments that force you to consider things you’ve maybe never thought about and facilitate really important conversations. We read When Breath Becomes Air and had a few medical ethics based discussions related to the book. We’ve also attended Grand Rounds related to autopsy findings. As future pathologists’ assistants, it important to be well rounded!
The other course that we are taking is surg path/autopsy practicum. We get to be in the gross room for 2 hours a week for the semester. Being able to get into the gross room during didactic year is such a unique opportunity. It gives us the hands on learning but we are also able to see the flow of the gross room, sit in sign out and look at slides, and practice using a dictation system. For the summer semester we each had 4 rotations. In my 4, I’ve gotten to use the Stryker saw on a bone specimen, sit at sign out, be a part of 2 interesting autopsy cases and gross some biopsies/small specimens.
Our classes are all just the 12 of us, (except for surg path which has 3 first year residents) so we’ve all become really close. When we aren’t in class or studying, we’re usually together, hanging by the pool, trying out some of the food in New Orleans (eating ice cream at creole creamery) or on a roof top.
Recently we started talking about clinical rotations next year, and while I could not be more excited to start clinicals, the reality is that it will be bitter sweet because we will all be in different cities next year. This year has flown by and it is so crazy to think about the amount of knowledge we’ve gained in just 7 months.