Start them while they’re young.

That’s one of the philosophies behind the University of Iowa’s new undergraduate major in neuroscience. With more people equipped at an earlier age to critically study the brain, advances in understanding the most complex human organ may come quicker.

The idea to start such a program on the UI campus was not a new one, but a $45 million grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust in 2016 to establish the Iowa Neuroscience Institute at the UI put it on the fast track, says Ryan LaLumiere, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the neuroscience major.

“The idea had been batted around,” says LaLumiere, “but the Iowa Neuroscience Institute gave it true impetus.”

Seventy-two students declared the major in the fall of 2017, the first semester it was offered. Majors will earn a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience from the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The program is administered jointly by the biology department and psychological and brain sciences department, and the Iowa Neuroscience Institute will provide support.

Information about the University of Iowa’s undergraduate program in neuroscience can be found on the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences website.

The University of Iowa has a strong graduate program in neuroscience, offering a flexible curriculum, teaching experience, full financial support, and state-of-the-art facilities.  Learn more >>

“Creating this major enables students to explore their interest in the brain and behavior and connect to a wider community of researchers and clinicians across campus,” says Ted Abel, director of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute. “Undergraduate students often ask broad and insightful questions that help neuroscientists see new perspectives on challenges in the field. In my own lab, undergraduate researchers helped us start a new project on the role of sleep in memory storage, allowing us to explore the interesting question of why we spend one third of our lives asleep.”

The neuroscience curriculum includes required classes in behavioral neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, cell and molecular neuroscience, animal physiology, research methods and data analysis, and more. Students also study chemistry, physics, and calculus, and potential elective coursework includes fundamental genetics, psychopharmacology, endocrinology, and the neurobiology of stress, among other subjects.

Students working in Joshua Weiner's lab in the Biology Building.

“Neuroscience is its own extraordinarily large discipline. It’s not a subdivision of any other discipline, but it overlaps with psychology and biology and even other disciplines, such as biochemistry and engineering. It requires understanding at multiple levels that span across multiple disciplines,” LaLumiere says. “Our single, integrated curriculum lays a foundation across all those levels, from behavioral and cognitive to molecular. While graduate study in neuroscience is much more specialized, students in our undergraduate program are exposed to the full breadth and range of neuroscience study at a younger age, and that’s key to seeing the big picture.”

Despite a strong reputation for neuroscience scholarship, the UI was one of the few Big Ten Conference schools without a neuroscience major. What sets the UI apart, says Joshua Weiner, professor of biology and associate director for education and outreach at the Iowa Neuroscience Institute, is the opportunity for undergraduates to do honors research in the labs of institute faculty members.

“There will be a lot of vertical integration with graduate students and researchers,” Weiner says. “We plan to pair undergraduates with mentors, and those students will become ambassadors for the University of Iowa. When they apply for graduate programs, those schools will see that they worked on exciting research projects at Iowa. That kind of thing changes perceptions. And a lot of those students will come back to Iowa.”

Joshua Weiner
Joshua Weiner

Ashton Thompson, a sophomore from Sioux City, Iowa, who sought a job in Weiner’s lab her freshman year, was among the first students to declare a neuroscience major.

“I was really excited when I heard about the major,” says Thompson, who previously planned to major in biology and psychology. “The neuroscience major combines all the good parts of those two areas and makes them one cohesive curriculum. It focuses more on biological psychology rather than social psychology, and that is what I’m most interested in.”

Weiner says it’s an exciting time to study neuroscience. He majored in psychology as an undergraduate at Northwestern University—but only because a neuroscience major wasn’t an option at the time. Since then, advances in brain imaging and genetics have sped up discovery, but he says there is still much to learn.

Cultivating young neuroscientists like Thompson will help, Weiner says.

“Neuroscience is considered by many to be one of the last frontiers of science,” he says. “We still don’t know how the mind and brain work to create cognition, and it’s important to give undergraduates the opportunity to focus on that.”

Story by Sara Epstein Moninger
Photography by Tim Schoon