Neuroscience at Boston University is booming. Introduced as an undergraduate major just a year and a half ago, it will be the second most popular science major in the College of Arts and Sciences by this fall. Still, only 4 of the 17 neuroscience majors graduating this year conducted enough original research to complete a senior honors thesis. "We need to get a larger percentage of our students into laboratories," says Paul Lipton, who will lead the new HHMI-funded program designed to do just that.
The central goal of the program, which is part of a broader science education initiative funded by an HHMI grant, is to bring students in the lab earlier in their undergraduate years. Most science majors at BU and elsewhere don't undertake research until they are juniors and seniors, says Lipton, academic director of BU's undergraduate program in neuroscience. That's not early enough if research experiences are meant to have a lasting impact on the students' career paths, he says.
The new program will revamp the lecture-based introductory neuroscience course into a hands-on, research-based experience. Rather than repeating cookbook lab exercises, students will work together in small teams to tackle real research problems under the guidance of faculty who are active researchers and respected teachers. Some students, for example, will explore the molecular and cellular mechanisms of memory formation. Others will devise experiments to image brain activity in people, or be trained to implant tiny electrodes in the brains of rodents to study how neurons communicate with one another. As they experience scientific discovery firsthand, the students will gain practical research skills through BU's electron microscopy facility and magnetic resonance imaging center.
Lipton's hope is that giving first-year students a kickstart in research will allow them to fully engage in the lab over the course of two or three years, rather than one or two semesters. The culmination of the experience, he says, will be a senior thesis that the students will be encouraged to submit for publication to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Previous science education grants from HHMI have helped BU establish its summer research program and bring new life sciences faculty to campus. As Lipton sees it, what better way to build on that program than by helping young minds flourish in a field that has clearly already caught their attention?