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Neuroscience major gains in popularity

Duke students have neuroscience on the brain.

Since becoming a major in Fall 2009, the neuroscience major has rapidly expanded in popularity. Although just 11 students graduated last year with the major, there are currently 119 neuroscience majors at Duke, Leonard White, associate director of undergraduate studies in neuroscience, wrote in a Jan. 31 e-mail.

The newly constructed major, housed in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, serves as a comprehensive extension to the pre-existing concentration in psychology and biology in neuroscience that had been in existence for more than 20 years, said Christina Williams, director of undergraduate studies in neuroscience. The program added almost a dozen courses in the last year alone, she noted.

“We are delighted, but not surprised, by the interest and enthusiasm of Duke students for the study of neuroscience,” Williams wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. “I think students sense the tremendous enthusiasm of the participating faculty, and see the vast opportunities to get involved in neuroscience research. The DIBS website lists 125 research active Duke faculty members interested in Neuroscience over 50 of whom indicate their interest in having undergraduates in their labs. Of this group, over 30 faculty are teaching undergraduate courses.”

The budding major provides a broad survey of the field of neuroscience and includes coursework in cellular and molecular neurobiology as well as brain and behavior. The program requires seven co-requisitites for a bachelor’s in science degree and six for a bachelor’s in arts degree—ranging from courses in chemistry to mathematics and physics for both—out of its 10 required courses.

“Neuroscience is a complex disciplinary subject,” White said. “Success in this field for an undergraduate major requires background studies in a variety of natural sciences and quantitative approaches to the study of life systems.”

The courses are rigorous because they are designed to provide sufficient knowledge for students who choose to pursue graduate degrees in the field, Williams said. This requires a firm background in science and quantitative subjects, she added.

With more than 100 declared majors, the neuroscience program could become the second largest pure natural science major behind biology if it continues to grow at this rate, Williams said. The program is adjusting to both increased interest and more students coming to Duke with strong foundations in the sciences.

Although many students will pursue graduate school after completing the major, Williams said the program’s growth is due in part to its interdisciplinary nature. She noted that the major provides a broad foundation in neuroscience that can be applied to a great number of career fields.

The major can be applied to law, social sciences, arts, humanities, public policy and even business and economics, White said.

Andrea Mihic, a sophomore majoring in economics, is taking the introductory neuroscience course NEUROSCI 101: “Biological Basis of Behavior,” said in a Jan. 31 e-mail that she enjoyed the versatility of neuroscience in understanding human decision making, which can be applied to her major.

“Economic models leave room for questions—they don’t explain the irrationalities we witness in the markets every day,” she said. “Neuroeconomics, on the other hand, could get there.”

Despite the program’s successes, Williams said there is room for further improvement. Administrators will consider changes to the curriculum to enhance the undergraduate experience, but there are not plans for dramatic alterations. For example, a new laboratory course that will focus on cell molecular and systems neuroscience will be offered on a limited-seat basis next Spring.


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