Undergraduate neuroscience is set to dramatically expand in coming years amid the long-awaited release of a report outlining the future of STEM at Yale.
The report, released last month, details a 10-year vision for bolstering Yale’s neuroscience profile. In addition to listing the science as one of five priority areas for University STEM investment, the committee called for expanding its graduate enrollment and creating an overarching Yale Neuroscience Institute.
The report makes scant reference to Yale College’s new neuroscience major; but professors say investments made elsewhere within the University –– both independent of and due to the report –– will trickle down to the rapidly expanding undergraduate program and will eventually improve its curricula and organization.
“[Neuroscience] is something that touches on a core element of our lives, what it means to be human, how it is we think and reason, how relationships work, how things go wrong in our grandparents,” said Nicholas Turk-Browne, co-director of undergraduate studies to the neuroscience major. “I think this is a core science that resonates with a lot of people, and so that’s why [interest] has been growing pretty rapidly and will continue to.”
Additional courses and research opportunities are the most concrete ways undergraduate neuroscience will expand in wake of the report. These improvements will be driven by ramped-up faculty recruitment, which is already underway at the medical school, according to Sreeganga Chandra, the School of Medicine’s deputy chair for neuroscience.
“The [Yale School of Medicine’s neuroscience] department is presently reviewing areas of expertise and making strategic faculty hires to strengthen certain areas, such as system neuroscience,” Chandra said. “We are paying particular attention to diversifying our faculty.”
Whereas Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors mostly perform basic science research to understand normal brain function, medical school neuroscientists, instead, use a translational approach to study a wider variety of topics, such as psychiatry and neurodegeneration.The neuroscience curriculum will incorporate additional courses with broader subject matter as new medical school faculty begin teaching within the program.
Currently, less than a third of professors affiliated with the neuroscience major hold primary appointments at the medical school. That number will rise, but it remains to be seen just how many of the new medical school recruits will eventually teach undergraduate neuroscience courses or whether the FAS will add neuroscience faculty members of its own.
Currently, the University’s neuroscience faculty are distributed over 10 departments –– ranging from psychology to physics to computer science. Core facilities, which include essential resources such as brain scanners and animal housing, are scattered across all of Yale’s campuses.
The Yale Neuroscience Institute will provide a homebase for all levels of University neuroscience in an effort to address organizational issues and centralize faculty and core facilities
“[The institute] will be an agora — a meeting place where people with common interests talk together, work together and have meetings together,” said Marina Picciotto, the deputy director of the medical school’s Kavli Institute for Neuroscience and one of 100 faculty members interviewed by the USSC.
A location for the institute has not yet been announced, but it will likely be located between the medical and central campuses, according to the report. It will house classrooms, space for core facilities and over 40 research groups.
Though the report does not address the major head on, improvements to undergraduate neuroscience are already underway. Even before the report’s release, the FAS committed to establishing a new fMRI center for student use. Undergraduate access to similar technologies will only expand following the report, as the committee’s call for investments into core facilities come to fruition.
Yale will become one of few institutions to give its undergraduates the opportunity to gather and analyze their own fMRI data, according to Turk-Browne. He said that he plans to use the new center in his research methods course, “Computational Methods in Human Neuroscience.”
“[Students] will not only be able to get involved with analyzing [fMRI] data, but also collecting their own data, designing experiments and asking new questions that haven’t previously been asked,” Turk-Browne said.
Neuroscience students will also be able to use the facility to fulfill the major’s independent research requirement. Construction of the center has already commenced in Dunham Laboratory and is expected to finish by the start of the spring semester.
Compared to peer institutions that established their own neuroscience programs years ago, Yale is still playing catch up. Harvard has offered a neurobiology major for over 10 years and currently ranks number one worldwide for its neuroscience education, according to U.S. News & World Report. Other universities, such as MIT and The University of Pennsylvania, established undergraduate programs decades ago.
Yale has offered neuroscience-related tracks within the Psychology and the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology departments for some time, but, until last year, it offered no formal neuroscience major.
“I’ve always been interested in the brain, so going to a place without an actual neuroscience major was difficult for me,” said Matthew Pettus ’20, reflecting on his first year at Yale before the neuroscience major was formally introduced.
Pettus said he felt the creation of the major led him in new paths of “intellectual exploration.”
Raeven Grant ’19, a former cognitive science and current neuroscience major, said she struggled to find an academic path that suited her interests before the neuroscience major was established.
“I didn’t think [cognitive science] was the perfect fit for me,” Grant said. “As someone who is interested in medicine, I really wanted to understand how microscopic things lead to things like behavior and disorders.”
Grant added that she has appreciated the effort the University has put into expanding its neuroscience program.
According to the College Board, 190 universities across the country currently offer a neuroscience major.