Disciplines cohere in new neuroscience major

July 23, 2015

In a way, liberal arts education always has been about the brain.

But with the introduction of a new neuroscience major this year at Saint Michael’s College, students will have a more focused and direct entry into an infinitely intriguing world of a “three-pound organ the size of a cauliflower that enables us to ponder, emote, move, feel and reason,” as the new program’s director, Melissa VanderKaay Tomasulo of the psychology faculty, puts it.

Neuroscience, as delivered at the small liberal arts college just outside Burlington, will be a world of scientists, psychologists, ethicists and philosophers, internships and mentored research – just for starters. But understanding that world with proper precision also could entail close encounters with leeches, spiders, rats, sheep brains and cow eyes — along with what the program’s other co-developer, biologist Adam Weaver, calls “the hardest animals of all to work with” – humans.

Professors Tomasulo and Weaver have been hoping to bring a neuroscience major to Saint Michael’s for more than five years, but practical, academic and political stars finally aligned this year to let them move ahead with a specific plan. “We didn’t want to just put something together—we wanted to put together something that was really good,” Tomasulo said, “and for a while it wasn’t ready — the number of courses available didn’t work.”

Advancing their purposes has been a new hire for the coming year, biology faculty member Ruth Fabian-Fine, who is a neuroscientist by specialty. She’ll be on the new major’s steering committee with Crystal L’Hote of philosophy, who will teach a “Philosophy of the Mind” course in the sequence, and Ari Kirshenbaum of psychology, who long has overseen the college’s Krikstone Laboratory for the Behavioral Sciences (Animal Learning Lab).

Other elements that make Saint Michael’s a natural campus for such a major are well-developed internship and mentored research programs already in place, along with two other well-established labs: the Psychophysiology and Virtual Reality Laboratory overseen by Tomasulo and colleague Anthony Richardson; and the Neurolie detector labphysiology and Neuroanatomy Laboratory that Weaver and Fabian-Fine will direct. Other lab pieces for students might be an Electroencephalograph Lab and a Polygraph (lie-detection) lab that are part of Tomasulo’s Behavioral Neuroscience course.

Creatively bringing together two very strong and popular Saint Michael’s departments, biology and psychology, for this new major had logistical challenges of space, scheduling and advising, but those challenges have been met to assure everything is in place when students return in late August, Tomasulo said. She noted that three incoming first-years already have declared to her their intent to enroll as neuroscience majors, along with two more rising sophomores and a junior who want to switch over.

Weaver says he’s met with several high school students thinking about Saint Michael’s who were excited to hear about the major too, and the program’s creators say once students arrive back on campus and hear about it, they expect more to join them, including sophomores who can change majors and still complete the required courses in the years remaining. Bulletin boards, mentions during orientation activities, a campus neuroscience mailing list, flyers for distributing among prospects and introductory meetings early in the semester are all ways they plan to spread the word. Some students already want to start a neuroscience club to bring in speakers and do outreach in local schools, teaching children about the brain, Tomasulo said.

“We were thinking five to 10 incoming new majors would be realistic, with 25 to 30 over four years – but were told that was very much an underestimate of what we’re going to get, based on the popularity of this major elsewhere and among our prospects from what Admissions tells us,” Tomasulo said. “So 20 to 80 are what we anticipate in total number of majors in a few years. Fortunately, the administration has been very supportive and is ready to accommodate whatever needs arise.”

Tomasulo said the type of student likely to thrive as a neuroscience major would be somebody who has “great time management skills, enthusiasm, someone who can really think outside the box — and students who aren’t afraid to get their feet wet, or their hands wet … They need to be learners who are very hands-on, because that’s what the major’s all about.”

“They’re going to have to expand their knowledge and be able to address problems through different lenses,” she said, touching on another element that makes Saint Michael’s so suited to this major in her opinion. “What’s really good for Saint Michael’s is that this is an interdisciplinary program, and I think that’s the zeitgeist today – it is disciplines coming together to study the human body in ways that really articulate a newfound expression, both for the biologists in their labs and the psychologists in theirs,” she said.

The earliest neuroscience majors at American colleges came to be in the late 1990s at a mix of liberal arts and mainly larger research universities, the professors said. Two institutions in Vermont that they know of — University of Vermont and Middlebury — have programs too, but Tomasulo said that Saint Michael’s will have its own distinct character, based on a different mix of resources in play, in different proportions.

As to what the more faint-of-heart might regard as creepy critters or body parts in the equation, Weaver’s lab uses leeches in its nervous system studies, Fabian-Fine concentrates on spiders, Kirshenbaum uses lab rats in his animal behavior work, and some psychology and biology labs include dissections of animal brains or eyes. But the professors find that students truly curious about the field and suited to it rarely have any issues with all that – and, not every student will necessarily need to do all of those particular labs.

The program creators said future paths that a neuroscience major prepares students well for might include laboratory technician, clinical research technician/assistant, pharmaceutical sales, science advocacy, lab animal care technician, or nonprofit work — along with graduate programs in neuroscience. “For those with a pre-health interest, a couple possible paths that this would be excellent for are occupational therapy and audiology,” Weaver said.

The professors noted that the popular press in recent years has been replete with interesting issues that fall under the neuroscience umbrella, such as the neurobiology of sleep as related to Alzheimer’s and heart disease, or recent interest in the science behind concussions, particularly relating to athletics.

Tomasulo and Weaver could see future expansion of their program to include connections to history, since some in that department at Saint Michael’s stress exploring history as an understanding of memory; and, “we’d like to see computer science get involved” with explorations of artificial intelligence, Tomasulo said.

“Neuroscience allows us to explore the world and human existence through biological, psychological and social lenses,” she said. “The human brain is also the only organ that can study itself!”

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