Once, ambitious students like Tiffany Kimbrough ’07 had to juggle two science majors to pursue well-rounded passions for scientific truth. But with the development of Dickinson’s new neuroscience program, students now have the opportunity to enjoy multiple sciences—biology, chemistry and psychology—in one interdisciplinary major.
|Ashfaq Bengali, associate professor of chemistry, briefs, from left, Sunita Jadu ’07, Janaki Chinnaswamy ’06 and Alexandria De Aranzeta ’07 in the new nanotechnology lab.
“My desire is to work with teenagers diagnosed with mental disorders,” says Kimbrough, an aspiring psychiatrist. “[Associate Professor of Psychology Teresa] Barber, my pre-health adviser, discussed with me the benefits of the neuroscience major in terms of my being an attractive medical-school applicant. I was excited to hear that Dickinson was expanding its reaches, embracing the new face of developing knowledge.”
The neuroscience program, approved in spring 2004, emerged from extensive faculty discussions the previous summer. “It seemed like the right time to talk about it,” says Barber. “We had just hired [Assistant Professor of Psychology] Tony Rauhut, who had a research interest in neuroscience, and there seemed to be considerable student interest as well.”
Together, Barber, Rauhut, associate professors of biology Tony Pires and Chuck Zwemer, Associate Professor of Chemistry David Crouch and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Pam Higgins designed a curriculum that includes 10 core courses in biology, chemistry and psychology; two electives; and a research experience.
“We didn’t just want a set menu of courses,” Barber explains. “The field of neuroscience is so big that you can explore a wide variety of specifics within it. If you have a set menu, you’re not going to allow students to own their major. That’s why we added the electives.”
One elective is a course that “directly addresses an aspect of neuroscience from a science perspective—like genetics, cell biology, cognitive science or environmental science,” says Barber. For the second elective, students take a course outside the sciences, exploring how neuroscience is reflected in the humanities and social sciences.
Understanding the philosophy of mind-body problems is just as important as learning about the nervous system, Barber explains. “Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The curriculum allows you to develop yourself in a particular aspect of neuroscience while also pushing you outside of the sciences, to see the sciences as the world views them.”
The last component of the major is a student research project—an independent study, summer exploration with a faculty member or an off-campus internship. “A lot of neuroscience programs at other liberal-arts colleges don’t require a research project, because it demands a lot of faculty involvement,” notes Barber. “But you can’t just learn science by watching. You learn both by watching and doing.”
What kind of research are Dickinson’s young neuroscientists pursuing? “A number have worked with brain-damaged patients at Hershey Medical Center,” Barber says. Last summer, Julie Rosner ’06 ran behavioral tests on dementia patients at Temple University. And Kimbrough spent her summer at Dickinson, helping Barber study arousal and memory in day-old chickens.
“The research in this field is doing groundbreaking things in the realm of mental health,” Kimbrough says. “I’m so glad I’ve been given the opportunity to be a part of this new and exciting major.”
Students with an affinity for the sciences also can enjoy a new addition to the chemistry program. A 2004 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Nanotechnology in Undergraduate Education fund has supported the integration of nanoscience into the existing curriculum.
Crouch and Associate Professor of Chemistry Cindy Samet ’82 began the nanoscience initiative after Chad Mirkin ’86, George B. Rathman Professor of Chemistry and director of the Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University, visited Dickinson in 2000. “We talked to him about ways to move our chemistry department forward,” Crouch explains. “He told us to try adding nanoscience to our own course offerings.” Nanoscience is the applied study of molecular and atomic particles.
Now, thanks to the NSF grant, students are exploring various aspects of nanoscience in Crouch’s introductory-level chemistry labs. “We have one lab where we try to make nanoparticles out of gold,” says Crouch. “Another lab, for example, involves making nanowires.”
Crouch also is teaching a first-year seminar, Nanotechnology: The Next Big Thing?, in which students compare science fiction with the current state of nanoscience. “The point is to ask: What are nanotechnologists able to do now?” Crouch explains. “What is feasible? For example, students are reading Prey [a novel by Michael Crichton]. We look at this and other science-fiction works and ask ourselves, ‘How true has the author stayed to the sciences?’ ”
Crouch’s hope is that the nanoscience program will generate a strong student interest. “I’d like to see more people in science in general, and in chemistry in particular,” he says. “And if you show people the cool stuff in chemistry, they’ll be more likely to find it interesting. Nanoscience is, after all, a really topical and fascinating application of chemistry.”