By Melissa Peerless

Brain Gain

By Melissa Peerless
The field of neuroscience explores the fundamental questions related to brain, behavior, and neurological disorders.

Understanding how the nervous system controls our behavior and mental processes represents a major challenge in science. In the 1960s, the field of neuroscience was created to approach this complex organ from a variety of approaches.

Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field that brings together researchers and clinicians from the biological sciences, psychology, chemistry/biochemistry, physics, engineering and medicine to explore fundamental questions related to brain, behavior and neurological disorders. 

Over the past 40 years, universities around the world have addressed the need to train the next generation of neuroscientists by creating graduate and undergraduate programs in this area.

The University of Miami formally created the university-wide Neuroscience Ph.D. Program in 1992, and established the undergraduate neuroscience major in the College of Arts & Sciences as an interdisciplinary program of study in 2001.

The neuroscience major offers diverse options for students interested in learning about the brain.

Joaquin Jiminez, a 2013 neuroscience graduate who is now enrolled at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, said, “It tackles a range of topics from philosophical questions as intangible as the nature of human consciousness, to mechanistic biological questions about how neurons find their targets during development.”

He added that neuroscience “attracts people with diverse interests and unique perspectives.”

Director of Undergraduate Academic Services for the Department of Psychology (UASP) Sean Kilpatrick agreed that neuroscience majors are a special group. “They are very committed to academics, and interested in learning,” he said.

The neuroscience major is an interdisciplinary program that allows students to investigate issues related to the brain and the central nervous system. It draws faculty and research opportunities from various departments in the College of Arts & Sciences (most notably psychology and biology), the Miller School of Medicine, and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Over 100 faculty members are involved with the program, both teaching and overseeing student research and training projects.

Students must take 130 credits to graduate, including such courses as Introduction to Psychology, Genetics, and the Neuroscience Laboratory.

Sophomore neuroscience major Mary Connolly said the program drew her to UM. “It was one of the main reasons I applied,” she said.

There are about 280 students in the program, which is open to 72 students per year. The size is limited by the available space for the required senior-level lab class.

“We keep the class size small,” said Kilpatrick. “Students get more personalized attention from faculty.” Acceptance to the major is competitive, with a minimum 1300 SAT/30 ACT score required.

Dr. Helen Bramlett, an associate professor in the Miller School Department of Neurological Surgery and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, heads the neuroscience program.

“It gives students a broad view of biology and psychology – and also chemistry, math and statistics,” she said.

Neuroscience students begin their time at UM with two special classes: FACT and FORUM. These two courses – which are run by the UASP office – combine academics with advising in a unique way.

During the first semester of their first year, they take FACT: Freshman Advising Contact Term. Through this unique course, they meet weekly with Kilpatrick, an Academic Advisor, and a Peer Advising Liaison. The result of these sessions is a roadmap to guide the student to graduation. It helps neuroscience majors develop viable graduation plans, allowing them to determine when to take mandatory courses, and how to fulfill other requirements from UM and beyond (for example, when they will sit for the MCAT medical school entrance exam).

Second semester brings FORUM: Faculty Overview of Research and Undergraduate Mentoring, which exposes students to the latest neuroscience research literature and trends.  Each week, students meet with a faculty researcher, and learn to analyze research and critically evaluate scientific articles.

They have an opportunity to interact closely with faculty and learn how to get involved in research, while continuing to monitor progress toward their graduation requirements.

Bramlett said the FORUM class is an important resource for neuroscience students. “The broad array of research papers shows students what they can do. It opens their minds to the variety of what is out there in neuroscience,” she said, adding that lively discussions often take place in class.

Undergraduate research is an emphasis within the neuroscience program, with students encouraged to seek out opportunities during the school year and the summers. “Research makes what students learn in class tangible,” said Kilpatrick. “It brings it to life.”

Andrew Mudreac, a sophomore neuroscience major, is working with Assistant Professor of Psychology Jennifer Britton on her study on anxiety in children. “They presented us with opportunities and ways to get involved early,” he said.

Britton works in the new, state-of-the-art Neuroscience Building, featuring an on-site fMRI machine.

Medical student Jiminez worked at the Lemmon-Bixby Lab of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis for most of his undergraduate career. His experience helped him select a specialty in medical school.

“Now I’m in medical school in a combined M.D./M.S. in Genomic Medicine Program,” he said. “Neuroscience really cemented my desire to continue on to medicine. Besides a good background in everything nervous-system-related (which has come in handy in med school), the neuroscience major and research experience promote the use of critical thinking skills that are of value in virtually any profession.”

Many neuroscience majors are pre-health, and a number go on to Ph.D. programs. Some enter the job market, doing research or working in biomedical, pharmaceutical or other industries.

Kilpatrick has recently partnered with UM’s Toppel Career Center to bring specialized advising services to neuroscience majors. This includes bringing a staff member from Toppel to the psychology advising office once per month, and organizing networking events.

Merissa Goolsarran graduated with a neuroscience degree in 2013. She is currently working as a research associate in the lab of Dr. Amishi Jha, associate professor of psychology and director of cognitive neuroscience for the UMindfulness initiative – conducting research on mindfulness and its “possible effects on attention, mood and memory.”

She is applying to social work programs for fall 2015. “This doesn’t seem like a field that most neuroscience majors would go into, but I want to be a social worker who has a deep understanding of the types of interventions and drugs that my clients might encounter as part of their treatment plans,” she said. “The research methods I learned while at UM will also help me evaluate potential clinical trials or new findings in the literature.”

Goolsarran said, “The neuroscience major helped me find my path. It is a challenging major that is ideal for those students who are looking to push themselves and be part of a cutting-edge field of science.”