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New neuroscience major gains popularity

Academic administrators hope that students with an intimate interest in the brain have found their niche with the new neuroscience major.

This Fall marks the first time that undergraduates will be able to pursue a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science degree in neuroscience after the Arts and Sciences Council approved the program in April.

Neuroscience is attracting many students who are interested in the specific discipline, particularly those on a pre-medicine track, said Christina Williams, chair of the department of psychology and neuroscience.

Twenty one students have already declared their major in  neuroscience­—mostly juniors and seniors who have switched from other majors, Williams said.

“We fully expect that number to grow as sophomores begin to declare majors next semester,” she added.

In addition, she noted that the academic interest survey for the Class of 2013 found that approximately 9 percent of incoming students in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences selected neuroscience as their first or second academic interest.

Sophomore Aubrey Rho said she was originally interested in psychology but switched to neuroscience because she “wanted a more scientific approach to the study of brain.”

Although neuroscience does not have its own department, the program draws from a number of other disciplines—including biology, biomedical engineering and philosophy. It is administered with the help of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

The DIBS provides administrative staff, infrastructure and a place where those interested in neuroscience can seek help, Williams said. The Institute has also been holding information sessions to give advice on the curriculum and its structure, according to its Web site.

Williams wrote in an e-mail that new labs, seminars and capstones will also be available starting as early as Spring 2010. The gateway course, “Biological Basis of Behavior,” will be offered beginning next summer.

Many private research universities, large public schools and liberal arts institutions have adopted neuroscience majors in the past decade, said Leonard White, associate director of undergraduate studies in neuroscience.

Sophomore Kate Pepper said she is interested in declaring the neuroscience major.

“Because neuroscience is growing quickly and gaining more support, I think there will be many opportunities like research,” Pepper said.

Duke was one of the first schools to create a neuroscience program for undergraduates, Williams noted. The University has had a certificate degree program for almost 20 years. In addition, the number of neuroscience faculty in Trinity, the Pratt School of Engineering and the School of Medicine has been steadily increasing.

“We felt it was now time to step the program into a major,” Williams wrote in an e-mail. “The reason the major can get off the ground so quickly is that we have the infrastructure provided by the successful neuroscience program to build upon.”  

White said other interdisciplinary connections are also increasing rapidly with the neuroscience program, such as the one with the Fuqua School of Business, called “Neuroeconomics.”

“There will be many opportunities for Duke students to minor in neuroscience and apply the fundamental knowledge to other programs,” he said. “Neuroeconomics shows collaboration between neuroscience and business—how the brain affects the way people make decisions, such as how they calculate risks.”

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