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New MSU major valuable to many

September 9, 2012


Editor’s Note: Views expressed in guest columns and letters to the editor reflect the views of the author, not the views of The State News.

This fall, for the first time, MSU undergraduates will have the opportunity to officially declare themselves neuroscientists.

The key word there is “officially.”

For years, Michigan State has been producing students who go on to embark on careers in neuroscience armed with degrees in psychology, biology, zoology and a diverse array of other related fields. Not to mention the university’s graduate program in neuroscience, which collects top students from all over the world to engage in research and scholarship.

However, 2012 marks the official ribbon-cutting of a new undergraduate major in neuroscience ­— a major that Undergraduate Program Director Laura Symonds says has been at least 10 years in gestation.

“Neuroscience as a field has experienced exponential growth in the past two decades,” Symonds said.

“I think the expansion of the field has generated interest in the general public and particularly among undergraduate students.”

With 41 students already enrolled in this fall’s NEU 301: Introduction to Neuroscience course, and a large group of incoming freshmen scoping out the new major, that interest seems to have translated to academic commitment.

Symonds points out that providing a rich learning environment was the priority during the development process for the major.

She describes “active, learning-centered courses that build on the excellent work of pedagogical experts,” as well as encouraging undergraduates to explore research opportunities with the outstanding research faculty on campus — many of whom were hired recently, funded in part by the undergraduate initiative.

This influx of talent and energy can only mean good things for the university.

In the 10-year period since the inception of this new program, others like it have sprung up all around the nation. For a growing, interdisciplinary field that draws voraciously from a wide spectrum of academic subjects, neuroscience has arrived at MSU not a moment too soon.

Michigan State’s reputation as a leading research university lies on the shoulders of its active faculty and students, whose discoveries and advancements not only lift the tide of science, but that of the school as well. Bringing in new blood in neuroscience — and crafting a program that encourages undergraduates to dive into the waters of research — promises a strong push forward for MSU’s research community.

The interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience helps. Because of its symbiotic relationship with fields like psychology, physiology and pharmacology, a beefed-up neuroscience program might potentially act like the very brain and nerves it studies — coordinating and organizing its neighbors in order to move the group ahead.

Symonds notes that this type of collaboration aided in the introduction of the new major.
“The effort was multidisciplinary and intensely cooperative, involving department chairs and directors for all the College of Natural Science departments, as well as many departments in other colleges,” she said.

Several key people contributed to the program’s development, which, while conceived a full decade ago, only became a serious prospect in 2010. Symonds and Cheryl Sisk, former director of the MSU Neuroscience Program, began building a curriculum and budget, aided by current NSP director Jim Galligan and Marc Breedlove, who holds the Barnett Rosenburg Chair in Neuroscience.

Introducing a new major at a university such as Michigan State takes a lot of work, but after two years of ironing out details and constructing answers to tough questions such as “What justifies this new program?,” “Will students actually pursue this major?” and “Will it place a strain on other departments?,” the neuroscience major has at last made its long-awaited debut.

The success of the program remains to be seen, but at this stage in the game, the major looks like a safe bet to survive.

The field of neuroscience has recently broken into the mainstream with television shows such as “Perception” and “The Mentalist,” but its academic and scientific prospects are even more auspicious. Our aging population, assisted by improvements in other health fields, needs breakthroughs to combat illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

With a new major and a larger neuroscience program, MSU has strengthened the foundation that might lead to such breakthroughs coming from the banks of the Red Cedar itself.

Craig Pearson is a guest columnist at The State News and a biochemistry junior. Reach him at


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