Washington University in St. Louis

Aug. 25, 2006
Vol. 31, No. 3

August 25, 2006 Record > Interdisciplinary 'pathway' trains new generation of neuroscientists

Interdisciplinary 'pathway' trains new generation of neuroscientists
By Tony Fitzpatrick
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the University a five-year, $2.8 million grant to implement an interdisciplinary doctoral graduate program blending neuroscience, psychology and biomedical engineering. In the Cognitive, Computational and Systems Neuroscience (CCSN) Pathway, students will design and execute their own crosscutting, innovative brain science projects as part of their theses, preparing them to become leading independent neuroscientists.

The grant's principal investigator is Gregory DeAngelis, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the School of Medicine.

The CCSN co-directors are DeAngelis; Todd Braver, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences; and Kurt Thoroughman, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

"Scientific study of the brain has always been approached from different disciplines, with major contributions coming from biologists, psychologists and engineers alike," said DeAngelis. "In recent years, the traditional lines between brain-related research in these fields have been blurred.

"The CCSN Pathway grew out of the belief that the top brain scientists of the future will be those who can readily move between disciplines, and can meld the parts of each field into a greater whole," he added. "The CCSN Pathway was designed to train a new generation of scientists that can use all of the available tools to unravel the inner workings of the brain. We feel that the pathway provides a model for how interdisciplinary graduate education will be done in the future."

The grant, part of the NSF's Integrated Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program, will extend and sustain the pathway for the next several years, DeAngelis said, providing stipends and educational expenses for six students per year, for two years per student. All students in the three doctoral programs can participate in CCSN courses.

Candidates for the IGERT funding must be U.S. citizens or residents, and need to apply and be accepted to the CCSN program during their first year of graduate school. Upon acceptance, participants need to commit to finishing the program.

The CCSN program's integrated curriculum was designed to foster students' abilities in all three areas. Five courses — the first three of which are core classes from each of the disciplines — require all students to cross-train and learn the fundamentals of each other's fields. These classes are: Cognitive Psychology Seminar, which provides an overview of the main topics of cognitive psychology; Biological Neural Computation, which details computations performed in the nervous system; and Neural Systems, which covers fundamental topics in systems-level neurobiology, functional neuroanatomy and the neural basis of behavior.

As students progress, Advanced CCSN will help them develop critical thinking and analysis skills in the context of a number of interdisciplinary, faculty-led case studies. The students will delve deeply into each topic from a variety of perspectives. In CCSN Project Building, the final course, students will choose a research plan in conjunction with at least two faculty members from different subdisciplines. The pathway culminates with the production of a National Institutes of Health-style grant proposal on the research project, serving for many students as a solid precursor to their thesis proposals.

Additional CCSN training includes: an inter-session course on mathematics and statistics of experimental neuroscience designed by Thoroughman; an intensive summer research experience headed by Braver; and an educational outreach program to be conducted with the St. Louis Science Center.

Besides the formal coursework and programs, the CCSN pathway will offer students personal and professional development through a series of "Immersive Encounters" with field experts, as well as discussion groups, and the opportunity to travel to unique conferences.

"This (the pathway) is a rich graduate training program," Thoroughman said. "The five courses partially satisfy the whole Ph.D. requirement and add between six months to a year of additional training. The pathway enables sustained communication with interdisciplinary faculty early in the graduate school career, when students are just getting ideas of what they want to do with their programs."

But Thoroughman said students aren't the only ones gaining advantages. "CCSN benefits faculty by bringing us sophisticated students who are able to generate research that is interestingly interdisciplinary. We think that the pathway is very important in the molding of cutting-edge brain scientists who will be very well trained in theory and practice."