Training in the Neuroscience Program combines a broad interdisciplinary curriculum with advanced electives that prepare trainees for intense thesis work in specific research areas. This includes coursework that exposes them to all subdisciplines of neuroscience within the first two years, including translational and clinical aspects, professional skills, and robust quantitative training.
During this time, students also rotate through the diverse laboratories and receive hands-on training in a variety of techniques and approaches. Complementing this training are multiple specific journal clubs, each facilitated by senior faculty, that expose students to the latest research within different subdisciplines.
Research Training in State-of-the-Art Approaches in Neuroscience
Although the course work, seminars, journal clubs, and tutorials are vital aspects of a student's education, the Neuroscience Program recognizes that the most critical part of training is laboratory research. Our students can choose from laboratories whose research focuses on Cognition and Memory, Sensory Systems and Integration, Neurobiology of Addiction, and Neurological Disorders as described above. While specific faculty research interest are provided on individual websites, within each of the broad categories listed, research projects span all levels of organization from molecular and cellular to systems and behavior.
During the first year of training, the student rotates through 2-3 laboratories of her/his choice. Each laboratory research rotation lasts approximately the length of the semester.
As soon as students are offered the invitation to join the program, we encourage them to contact individual faculty members to discuss research opportunities in the laboratory. The program Director and Associate Director help students with these initial contacts. Students are encouraged to talk with several faculty members regarding lab research because we believe that interesting research experiences during your first year can lead to the judicious selection of a faculty advisor for the PhD thesis research.
Once they have matched with a thesis lab and mentor (typically within two rotations), students start designing their thesis project. At this point, they have been exposed to a spectrum of subjects, perspectives, and techniques, and are ready to dive more deeply into a specific issue. Their home laboratory provides them with much of the additional advanced training that is necessary. However, because many laboratories require the same advanced competencies, we offer a series of advanced elective courses that provide formal instruction on select issues. Additional courses provided by subdiscipline-specific training grants are also available. Students are counseled, guided, and mentored throughout their training experience by multiple faculty, catching and remediating problems as soon as they occur, and steering students in directions that best-fit their drive and interests. As our Outcomes indicate, this program produces outstanding graduates.
Introduction Neuroscience I: This course covers basic topics in modern neuroscience and provides a strong, interdisciplinary foundation. The course is composed of two sections: I) Neuroanatomy and II) Neurophysiology and Neuropharmacology. In Neuroanatomy, students attend lectures that provide an overview of material and work in teams in the laboratory to explore anatomical relationships. In Neurophysiology/Pharmacology, sessions are a mixture of didactic lectures, discussion and student review and presentation of primary literature related to topics covered.
Introduction to Neuroscience II: This team-taught course is composed of three sections: I) Development, II) Sensory Systems, and III) Motor Systems. The overall course format is focused on student discussion of material. Course assignments and examinations are designed to develop student skills in experimental design and interpretation, literature review and oral and written presentation of material.
Introduction to Neuroscience III: Topics covered in this section include core concepts of cognitive neuroscience and psychology (e.g., attention, learning and memory, language, perceptual encoding, executive function, specialization, segregation, and lateralization) and basic computational concepts and models (e.g., associative networks, feature maps, learning algorithms). As this is the third in the series, it is also used as an opportunity to develop professional skills. Students develop the lectures and lead the discussions in this course, with expert faculty facilitation, guidance, and feedback.
Quantitative Methods in Biomedical Sciences: This is the introductory quantitative data analysis course for the program. It was designed with two principles in mind. First, we recognized that if students were to be competent in selecting the proper methods for analyzing their data, and critically evaluating the selections of others, it was essential that they understand the concepts and mechanics underlying statistical analysis, and not just be trained in “point-and-click” software packages. Second, we recognized that modern datasets could no longer be analyzed by hand, and that virtually all modern analyses require automation. Competency is assessed with formal testing, evaluation of student-selected “analysis projects”, and evaluation of programming assignments. This course has grown to be the most popular statistical methods course in the entire graduate school with an annual enrollment of over 60 students as all PhD programs now appreciate the value of this type of training. It is also one of the highest-rated courses in student reviews. Graduates of this course go on to program and control the apparatuses and analytic frameworks in their respective laboratories.
Clinical Neuroscience: This is a required course taken in the fall semester in the second year. The course brings together clinicians and basic scientists to discuss the current research and clinical status of neurological disorders. Each session consist of lectures delivered by a team comprised of a clinician and a basic scientist. The lectures are followed (or interspersed) with student discussion with presenters. Each year, approximately 30 faculty members participate in this course attesting to faculty dedication to student training. The clinician presenting the disorder in terms of how the patients present, how diagnosis is made, current therapeutic strategies and progression of the disorder. The basic scientist then presents how the disorder is studied in the lab in terms of models, approaches, and relevance. Participants in the course have to consider both clinical and basic science issues to evaluate current state of the field, what could be done to develop translational approaches to improve our understanding of the disease, and how to develop effective therapeutics. Another component of the course is to have graduate students shadow clinicians and visit the clinics to gain first-hand knowledge of some of the disorders. Through this course, we leverage our expertise and the collaborative environment between clinicians and basic scientists to develop and implement more specific translational components to our training program. The final project for this course is preparation and presentation of the Research Training Plan for a mock-NRSA proposal. The proposal is to consist of a basic science and clinical aim to promote student bridging of the gaps between bench and bedside. In the last week of the course, students review peer proposals using mock-NIH study section critiques.
*NEW* Advanced Multivariate Analysis: An advanced class taken during the second year of PhD training focusing on the methods of complex multivariate data analysis for real biological datasets, complete with mixtures of fixed and random effects, missing entries, errors, and outliers. The course is centered on analytic projects that utilize combinations of linear/nonlinear regression, mixed models, and Bayesian estimation to explore best practice approaches to complex problems.
Journal Clubs: All neuroscience students are required to register for a directed journal club each semester while in graduate school. The journal club readings enhance the student’s appreciation and understanding of a research field. The student-to-student and faculty-to-student interaction that journal clubs provide helps students develop critical reasoning skills and peer-review experience. Journal clubs inherently incorporate a means for providing students with experience in peer review skills.
Current journal clubs are: Pain and Anesthesiology; Sensory Neuroscience; Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience; Network Science; Memory, Cognition and Aging; and Addiction.
Students are required to take at least one elective course, usually in the second year. However, students can take as many electives at any time after the first year as different topics may become relevant to research and career interests.
- Advanced Molecular Approaches to Neuroscience: By the end of this course, the student should have a firm foundation in understanding experimental design, the techniques used, and the analysis of data/data sets from advanced methods used in modern neuroscience and cell biology.
- Behavioral Pharmacology: This course focuses on behavioral factors that influence the effects of drugs. Material presented provides the historical context and core principles that are the foundation of behavioral pharmacology.
- Research Design in Sensory and Systems Neurobiology: This is an introduction to quantitative methods used in the analysis of experimental data in systems neuroscience, including statistical, probabilistic and computational techniques.
- Synaptic Physiology for Biologists: In this course, graduate students will be introduced to theory, techniques, and mechanisms of synaptic physiology. We will focus on molecular underpinnings of plasticity at the synapse - both pre- and post-synaptically, specifics of electrophysiological and electrochemical tools used to probe synaptic function, and how alterations of synaptic physiology contribute to maladaptive states in the whole organism.
- Neuropharmacology: General survey of neuropharmacology, emphasizing neurotransmitters, receptors and their interactions. Discusses general principles of drug action, including receptor binding, second messengers, and neurotransmitter metabolism. Surveys neurotransmitter function, including acetylcholine, biogenic amines, excitatory and other amino acids, and neuropeptides.
- Neural Networks and Machine Learning: An advanced course providing essential theory and practical experience in developing neural network architectures and methods for machine learning. The course combines didactic lectures on foundational concepts with practical laboratory exercises that provide hands-on experience in designing, implementing (MATLAB), and evaluating the performance of these algorithms.
- Intro to Neuroimaging: This course is the first in a series of elective courses for second-year neuroscience graduate students covering basic topics in neuroimaging acquisition, processing and analysis. Topics covered in this section include basics of MRI image acquisition, fundamentals of structural and functional MRI, and an introduction to other commonly used imaging methods (PET, MEG, spectroscopy, ultrasound).
- Computational Neuroscience: This advanced course explores topics in theoretical and computational neuroscience spanning multiple levels of abstraction, from models of ion channels and single neurons to decision-making and behavior. Major topics include models of individual neurons and populations, information theory, common network architectures involving oscillations and attractor dynamics, mechanisms of synaptic plasticity, neural encoding and decoding, and computation within large-scale neural networks.
Future success of program graduates will depend upon not only rigorous academic and research training, but also the student’s ability to follow a successful career path. The program has many opportunities for the refinement of professional skills and actively encourages students to participate in career development activities.
- Oral Communication: During the Summer Semester, first and second year students are required to present a 30 minute talk on their research from one of the rotations (first year), or initial research results as s/he begins thesis project. Third year and above students present a 50 minute talk during the fall or spring semester.
- Written Communication: In addition to course assignments, first and second year PhD students must submit a report of their research activities. This paper often serves as a first draft of the background for thesis proposal (if the research stems from work in the thesis mentor’s lab), or as a draft of a to-be-submitted journal article on which the student would be a co-author.
- Poster Presentations: Program students coordinate the Research Day Poster Session (usually held in December). All second year and above students are required to present a poster of their research in the competition. This provides an opportunity for all students to practice presentation skills before presenting at national meetings. Posters are scored by ad-hoc faculty committees, who also provide immediate feedback to students on research, poster layout, and clarity of presentation. Typically, all year 3+ students present posters that have or will be presented at National/International meetings.
- Grant Writing and Reviewing: Our students initially gain experience preparing the Research Training Portion for an NRSA application in the Clinical Neuroscience Course taken in the fall semester of second year. In addition to preparing a mock application (reviewed by their peers and Course Director), students also prepare modified, study-section critiques of peer applications. This exercise prepares students for the advance to candidacy exam and presentation and ultimately, submission of an NRSA application to NIH and later participation on study sections.
- Career Planning in the Biomedical Sciences: A weekly seminar course in which invited alumni panelists share details on career options in the biomedical sciences, typically grouped by industry, highlighting a wide range of career paths. Speakers will share details from their own experiences in preparing for their chosen career paths, and may include: undergraduate college teaching, pharmaceutical research, law careers, medical writing, science policy, and grants management, among other careers. In addition to the panel discussions, students will have the opportunity to complete self-assessment exercises to help narrow their career focus, will begin to discuss best practices in resume, curriculum vitae, cover letter writing, and interviewing skills. The program recommends students complete this course in Year 3 after advancing to candidacy.
- Scientific Outreach: This course provides hands-on engagement with teaching and educational opportunities directed at the lay public or other, non-university groups. Planning outreach events and communicating scientific concepts to the lay public are essential skills for any scientist-in-training, especially those who may be involved in academic lecturing or public policy. The scope of such activities will derive from the scientific disciplines of the students involved, but will include activities involving the informal teaching of basic and translational science concepts in the biomedical sciences and other STEM-related disciplines. Examples of such engagement include K-12 school visits, involvement in public symposia related to science for lay audiences, or any similar activity performed under faculty guidance. Scientific Outreach is coordinated by our Brain Awareness Council with faculty oversight.
- Making Medicines: The goal of this course is to present and introduce the process of taking a preclinical compound through clinical trials and FDA approval.
- Principals of Intellectual Property Development: Designed for late-stage graduate students to supplement their scientific background with a greater understanding of intellectual property protection, commercialization, and start-up company formation.
Teaching and Outreach
While preparation for a research career in the Neurosciences is the central focus of our program, we also ensure students gain experience in teaching and outreach, and exposure to an increasing number of opportunities in the industry in which scientists with the training we provide go on to be extraordinarily successful. These additional experiences not only expand students’ competencies and enhance their opportunities for highly impactful careers, they encourage them to maintain broad interests and open them to collaborative pursuits; e.g., in pursuing translational/clinical directions (e.g., with a Clinical, Population and Translational Science (CPTS) certificate or MS in Health Disparities in Neuroscience Disorders (HDND)) or collaborations with industry (e.g., PhD/MBA program, commercialization and tech transfer elective courses, Industry internships.