B.S. in Neuroscience Takes Off at Georgia Tech
B.S. in Neuroscience Takes Off at Georgia Tech
UPDATED 10/25/2017 — When Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences created a prospectus for a new Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience, it estimated 25 to 50 students would enroll the first year. Wrong.
Since the new degree program was approved by the Board of Regents on Valentine’s Day 2017, nearly 200 students clamored to sign on.
This enthusiastic response was surprising — but then again, not, says Tim Cope, chair of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Curriculum Committee and professor in the School of Biological Sciences and the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“Hardly a day goes by that there’s not something in the news — a health concern or a recent breakthrough or societal challenge — that doesn’t involve neuroscience,” he says.
'So Many Opportunities'
“It’s a growing field with so many opportunities, and it’s inspired a lot of interest from our students.”
“I got really excited when I learned about the new major,” the rising second-year student says. “I think I was one of the first to turn in my paper to switch.”
One of them is Yeseul Heo.
Heo’s original major was psychology — and she is keeping that as a minor, along with a double major in international affairs — but she sees neuroscience as a way to put her studies on a more quantitative footing.
“Along with psychology, I wanted to focus more on hard research, specifically on brain activity, and working with quantitative data,” she says.
Students in the B.S. in Neuroscience program are strongly encouraged to participate in undergraduate research.
Heo has gotten a taste of neuroscience already as a student assistant in the lab of Associate Professor of Psychology Eric Schumacher, whose research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging and other experimental techniques to investigate the neural mechanisms for vision, attention, memory, learning, and cognitive control.
A Research Community
Schumacher is one of more than 50 faculty members from disciplines across Georgia Tech who are involved in neuroscience research — and have been for years.
But however collaborative, widespread, and even world-renowned these neuroscience efforts have been, what they have lacked, Cope suggests, is “community.”
He and many others anticipate this new undergraduate degree will build that necessary component, for both faculty and students. “It’s a very important, symbolic event in the development of neuroscience on this campus,” he says.
College of Sciences Dean, Paul M. Goldbart.
Neuroscience is “the perfect incarnation of an interdisciplinary subject,” says College of Sciences Dean and Sutherland Chair Paul M. Goldbart.
“It’s also a subject of deep intellectual interest. Who couldn't be curious about how the brain and nervous systems work at the most basic level?”
Goldbart “couldn’t be more excited” about the new degree, because “It opens up a marvelous new channel to a wide variety of career paths and will make Georgia Tech even more appealing to prospective undergraduates in the sciences.”
“I am grateful to everyone who worked so hard to create a program that defines 21st-century neuroscience education for a 21st-century technological research university.”
Getting from neuroscience activity to neuroscience community at Georgia Tech has been something of a journey, starting with the formation of a “NeuroX” committee back in 2014 and ending with Board of Regents approval for the new undergraduate degree in February 2017.
To reach this place, certain boxes had to be checked. It was not enough that faculty were engaged in neuroscience and students wanted it, although that was clearly the case.
Every time the Institute offered a neuroscience course, it maxed out, and professors were constantly asked if there would be more courses, or if they could open up another section.
Still, Cope points out, “It’s a legitimate thing for the administration to think about these things exceedingly carefully. No university can be everything — there’s a limit to resources and we have to be strategic with our planning.”
Basically, the key questions were:
- Is there a demand for this major from employers?
- Is there a demand for this degree from students?
- How would a neuroscience degree program advance Georgia Tech’s strategic plan?
- And would the program be redundant within the University System of Georgia?
This last question sent Cope over to Georgia State University — the only other USG school with an undergraduate neuroscience degree — to meet with the leadership of their Neuroscience Institute.
“I said, ‘Here’s what we’re planning to do,’” Cope recalls.
“They said, ‘Oh, this is fantastic, with Georgia Tech’s traditions and resources, you bring something unique to the table,’ and they wrote a letter for me right on the spot — they endorsed our plan 100 percent.”
'Kind of Pulsing'
While every neuroscience program has its “multiplication tables,” as Cope terms them — certain facts every neuroscientist has to know — the bigger challenge is, where do students take it from there?
Heo eventually wants to take her neuroscience focus into the study of first impressions. “You develop this first impression within two seconds in your brain, and you don’t control that, ever,” she says.
“So, I want to figure what’s the reason behind it, and if we learn the reason, is there a way to, not eliminate it, but maybe try to understand each other better, avoid racism and discrimination, and bring about more peace.”
As a neuroscience undergraduate, Heo will learn what Cope calls “the three flavors of neuroscience” — cell and molecular, behavioral, and systems.
Beyond these basics, Heo can branch out into one of 10 different specializations — biochemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, health and medical, physics, physiology, or psychology.
In her case, completing the psychology specialization will qualify her for a minor in that field.
Students are coming into the program from disciplines all over campus, and all these areas can and do intersect with neuroscience, notes Cope. “To have a degree in neuroscience means you have to be conversant in wide-ranging concepts,” he says.
“In my mind’s eye, I have the sense of neuroscience kind of pulsing — it borrows concepts and technologies from all the fields, but it doesn’t only take, it gives back.”
Capping It Off
The undergraduate neuroscience degree will — as with all Georgia Tech disciplines — culminate in a senior research or capstone project.
“We want to leave our students with an experience that really gets their creative juices going and gives them a tantalizing view of what they might do next,” Cope says.
The degree program website lists 50 occupations for which neuroscience can serve as preparation or grad school foundation.
And then, of course, there’s entrepreneurship.
Among the many other student startup and business incubators in and around Georgia Tech, there’s even one called NeuroLaunch, which introduces itself as “the world’s first neuroscience startup accelerator.”
Georgia Tech’s Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience launched this fall.
As the community builds and the degree program gains visibility, Cope expects Georgia Tech to carve its niche among neuroscience programs as only Georgia Tech can.
“We’re especially mindful of active learning here, of inquiry-based education, where the students are led to discovery, not just have the discovery dumped in their laps,” he says.
“What we’d like to bring to neuroscience is the strong analytical, deep understanding of concepts and methods that Tech brings to its curriculum in all fields.”
Down the road, Cope sees the undergraduate degree program leading to more and bigger grants for neuroscience research at Tech, and ultimately a Ph.D. program.
In the meantime, he says, there’s much to learn and do, quoting a fortune cookie slip he’s kept in his wallet for more than 25 years now: “It says, ‘You are respectable, you are intelligent, you are creative — prove it.’
I think that applies here. We’ve got a lot of what we need to do some really great things in neuroscience. Now we’ve got to prove it.”