Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 21, 1996 Form

Major A Brainy

Emil Venere Homewood
News and Information
Joyce Hairston couldn't find the right major to suit her true love--probing the biological consequences of nervous system disorders.

She was mulling over a biology-psychology double major when Hopkins started a new program this fall for undergrads. The new major, called neuroscience, draws on the broad expertise of life sciences at Homewood and the Medical Institutions.

"This is exactly what I wanted to do," said Hairston, a junior who has aspirations to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. program or attend medical school.

Another junior, Courtney Burnette, was in a similar situation when she heard about the neuroscience major. No program quite matched her interest: to study the anatomical, molecular and biological workings of the nervous system.

"I was really excited when I found out about it," said Burnette, who had been sold on neuroscience ever since she took a class last semester called Neural Systems and Behavior, taught by Harry Goldberg, a research associate in the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.

"It was by far the best class I've taken at Hopkins," Burnette said.

When the major officially began this semester, she enrolled in three neuroscience courses. But students aren't the only people who are excited about neuroscience these days.

"The neuroscience field is just really explosively growing," said Mike McCloskey, chairman of the Cognitive Science Department and the neuroscience program. One reason for the blossoming of neuroscience is the advent of better tools, such as advanced imaging devices to study the brain.

"There is tremendous interest in it, and a lot of good things are happening in research in the area," McCloskey said.

That interest was one of the motivations behind Hopkins' decision to create the new major, said psychology professor Gregory Ball, an academic adviser in the program.

The neuroscience field has been coming into its own since the 1970s, when scientists studying the nervous system in various disciplines began to realize that they should be unified.

For example, researchers studying the anatomy of the nervous system would attend meetings with other anatomists, many of whom specialized in entirely different areas, such as bone and muscle structure.

"People studying the brain realized that a lot of separate disciplines were interested in the brain, and they weren't talking to each other," Ball said. "Some people were studying brain and behavior; some people were studying neuroanatomy; some people were studying neurophysiology; some people were studying brain development.

"People got the idea that, because the brain is one of the great last frontiers and one of the most complex problems facing the life sciences, these people ought to meet each other."

Hence, the Society for Neuroscience, based in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1970, growing from about 500 members that year to more than 25,000 today. Annual neuroscience meetings are attracting 20,000 scientists.

"More and more universities began to offer graduate degrees in neuroscience because they realized that you shouldn't be a psychologist, or you shouldn't be an anatomist ... but you need to have integrated training in all these disciplines," Ball said.

At Hopkins, the major is broken into three components: systems neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, and cellular and molecular neuroscience.

The systems component deals with how nerve cells are arranged in circuits, or systems, which control specific functions. Cognitive neuroscience refers to the study of how the brain accomplishes cognitive functions, such as language, memory and perception.

Cellular and molecular neuroscience focuses on the basics of how nerve cells work and communicate with each other.

"Part of the idea was to make a connection between the cellular and molecular nuts and bolts of biology and some of the most exciting questions that life scientists are grappling with today," Ball said.

Students must complete 12 credits of advanced neuroscience courses and six credits of research in a neuroscience lab.

For the most motivated undergrads, Hopkins also is offering a five-year program leading to a master's degree in neuroscience; one of the years is dedicated nearly entirely to research.

"We think that will be extraordinarily good preparation for somebody who wants to go on to a research career in neuroscience," McCloskey said.

Students will have a chance to work in some of the premier neuroscience labs at the Homewood campus and the Medical Institutions.

"We want to have students getting involved in research," Ball said. "A motivated, talented student, of which we have many here, could graduate and finish with a B.A./M.S."

Hopkins is an ideal place to teach neuroscience to undergrads because of the combined resources at the medical school and Homewood, Ball said.

"It was decided that, given the talent available at Hopkins, we should try to reflect the breadth and depth of the neuroscience field, and the neuroscience field goes all the way from people who are trying to understand how thought processes are represented in the brain, such as language or visual perception, to people who are studying the molecular properties of neurons," Ball said.

Students interested in learning more about the program should contact Goldberg at the Mind/Brain Institute, (410)516-8640, or by e-mail, at

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