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Neuroscience at Yale: A Student’s Perspective

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Hale Jaeger in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info. 




A Brief Overview of Neuroscience


What is Neuroscience?


Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system. While many people think it is just about the brain, it also centers on the spinal column and all the nerves in your body. The nervous system has functions all across the body, not just in the brain. It is a broad and all-encompassing field that is relatively new at many schools. It is a burgeoning field in STEM, and there is a lot of research and innovation happening in areas such as dementia research, brain cancer, neurosurgery, and other areas that relate to the nervous system.


Neuroscience at Yale


At Yale, neuroscience is a new major. It didn’t exist when Hale was a first-year student, and before that, there were neuroscience tracks in psychology and biology majors. The newness of the department has translated into some change in the last few years where the requirements aren’t quite set in stone, but he expects them to settle down once the field becomes more defined. 


College Experience for a Neuroscience Major


As a neuroscience major, you can expect a challenging and stimulating college experience. The field is growing rapidly, and there are many opportunities for research and innovation. You will also have the chance to learn from experts in the field and be exposed to cutting-edge technology.


While Hale’s focus is on the pre-med track, there are many things you can do with a neuroscience major outside of medicine. Some potential career paths include research, academia, biotechnology, and more.


Interdisciplinary Connections within Neuroscience


Neuroscience is a field that brings together multiple disciplines to understand the biological underpinnings of psychological phenomena. It brings together fields like psychology, which studies the mind and behavior, and biology, which focuses on the pathways and cells that make up the nervous system. Additionally, computer science and statistics play a significant role in the field, providing valuable tools for research and analysis.


Understanding and Treating Mental Disorders


A significant focus of neuroscience is understanding and developing treatments for mental disorders such as dementia, PTSD, schizophrenia, and other DSM disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is currently the gold standard for understanding and categorizing mental disorders. With the most recent edition, the DSM-5, published in 2013, the manual is not perfect and is expected to evolve and adapt as neuroscience research progresses.


The Role of Computer Science in Neuroscience


Neuroscience also includes elements of computer science. Some basic applications of computer science in neuroscience include statistics for research, creating tasks, constructing models for neuroimaging, and analyzing scans like MRIs. Additionally, the concept of neural networks, which are used for language processing and environment processing, plays a significant role in neuroscience. This can be seen in Siri on your phone, which is reliant on neural networks and natural language processing, a subfield of computer science that leans on neuroscience and the ways that we process language.


The Courses in a Neuroscience Program


Neuroscience programs include understanding the basics of neurobiology, neuropathways, and the current state of the field. Here are the types of classes and skills required to pursue a major in neuroscience and what students can expect as they delve deeper into the field.


Foundational Classes


To build the foundations of neuroscience, students will need to take introductory classes in biology and psychology. Additionally, students will typically need one or two courses in neurobiology to get a more specific overview of the field. This will give students a general understanding of the pathways and concepts involved in neuroscience.


Lab Requirements


In addition to classroom learning, students will likely be required to take a biology lab of some kind. This might include neurobiology lab or a nucleic acids lab, where students will work with animal models to understand the ways that they operate. This hands-on experience will give students a deeper understanding of the subject matter.


Chemistry and Physics


Chemistry, specifically organic chemistry, is often required for a neuroscience major. Additionally, students will need to have some level of understanding of physics, specifically mechanics and electricity and magnetism. The nervous system operates on the basis of electric signaling, so understanding how electricity works is essential for a comprehensive understanding of the field.


Computer Science


While not essential, having a background in computer science or coding can be beneficial for a neuroscience major. This is because computer technology is often used in neuroscience research to analyze data.


Advanced Classes


After completing the foundational classes, students will typically take advanced classes that delve deeper into specific areas of neuroscience. These might include classes on clinical neuroscience, adolescent neuroscience, social neuroscience, developmental neuroscience, and psycho-pharmacology. These classes will give students a more complete understanding of the nuances and details of the field.


Research and Thesis


Many schools, including Yale, require students to do some form of research or write a thesis as part of their neuroscience major. This varies from school to school but is a common requirement. This experience will give students the opportunity to work with actual participants in research and have an end product to their years of study within the field.


Math in Neuroscience


Math is not a major component of neuroscience but is necessary to understand statistics and analyze data. Additionally, a basic understanding of math is needed to understand physics.

Research and extracurricular opportunities for neuroscience 


Neuroscience Beyond the Classroom


Research Opportunities in Neuroscience


Hale has had the opportunity to work in two different labs at Yale, as well as a lab at Rutgers over the summer. The field of neuroscience offers a wide range of research opportunities, including basic, translational, and clinical research.


Basic research in neuroscience focuses on cellular work, studying the fundamental building blocks and pathways within cells or cell cultures. Translational research involves working with animal models, such as mice, rats, dogs, non-human primates, worms, frogs, and grasshoppers, to better understand disorders and their potential translation to humans. This type of research can include surgeries, drug trials, and behavioral studies. Clinical research, on the other hand, studies human subjects and often involves clinical trials of new treatments or therapies.


Hale’s research centers on perception and psychosis spectrum disorders, such as schizophrenia, with a focus on how mental health experiences can impact an individual’s perception of the world. 


Clinical opportunities in neuroscience


Hale has had the opportunity to shadow in the memory disorders clinic at Yale New Haven Hospital. This experience has allowed them to gain insight into various clinical fields within neuroscience, including neurology, psychiatry, neurosurgery, and audiology. In neurology, the focus is on memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, as well as conditions that affect the central and peripheral nervous systems, such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and neuropathies. Psychiatry, on the other hand, deals more directly with the brain and focuses on mental health and mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and spectrum disorders like schizophrenia and PTSD. Neurosurgery, as the name suggests, involves surgery on the nervous system, particularly the brain. Audiology, a field that the author personally became interested in through a project on language processing disorders like aphasia, deals with the hearing system and the anatomy of the ear, nose, and throat.


Policy opportunities in neuroscience 


Policy work can take many forms, but one example is helping hospitals to update their best practices and protocols. This can be especially important in the field of neuroscience, where new research and technologies are constantly emerging. By working with hospitals to ensure they are using the most up-to-date and effective methods, you can help improve the care and outcomes for patients with neurological conditions.


For example, Hale had the opportunity to work in a radiology department during one summer and focus on improving the way we treated stroke patients. Stroke is a time-sensitive condition and the sooner treatment is received, the better the outcomes. My goal was to find ways to increase the quality of care while decreasing the time between a patient’s arrival at the hospital and receiving proper treatment.


Another way to get involved in policy work is by advocating for scientifically informed legislation in your city, state, or country. This can include working to promote policies that support neuroscience research, access to care for neurological conditions, and education about brain health. By staying informed about current healthcare policies and legislation, and working to promote those that are based on sound scientific evidence, you can help ensure that your community has access to the best possible healthcare.


Community service opportunities in neuroscience


As a student studying neuroscience, there are many opportunities to get involved in community service and make a difference in the lives of others. One way to do this is by volunteering with care facilities or affected communities.


One example of community service opportunities is volunteering with developmentally disabled kids and providing swim lessons. This can be a rewarding experience as it allows you to use your skills and passion for swimming to help others. Additionally, it can be a great way to stay active and healthy.


Another opportunity for community service is working with veterans, particularly those who have PTSD. PTSD is a condition that affects many veterans and research in neuroscience is helping to better understand this condition and develop new treatments. By volunteering with veterans organizations, you can use your knowledge and skills to support those who have served our country and help them navigate the challenges they face.


Career opportunities with a neuroscience degree


Neuroscience majors are becoming increasingly popular among students, particularly those interested in pursuing a career in medicine. The field of neuroscience is highly focused on understanding human behavior and cognition, making it an ideal choice for students interested in psychiatry, neurology, and neurosurgery.


However, a degree in neuroscience also provides a strong background in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology, which can be valuable in a wide range of medical specialties. Additionally, students who major in neuroscience often go on to pursue careers in research or academia, working as neuroscientists or professors.


Other career options for neuroscience majors include working in biotech startups, becoming a therapist with a PhD in psychology, or pursuing law or policy work related to mental health and research. Additionally, some students with a background in neuroscience may choose to go into computer science or biomedical engineering, or even marketing, with the rising field of neuromarketing.




Can you speak a little bit about the important skills of a serious researcher? 


Being a researcher requires more than just scientific curiosity. While it’s certainly important to be curious and excited about the potential of new discoveries and breakthroughs, it’s also important to have the diligence to do the “boring” work that is necessary for successful research. This includes tasks such as getting approval from the institutional review board (IRB), conducting literature reviews, and reading extensively to understand what research has already been done.


It’s also important to be resilient when experiments go wrong or yield unexpected results. The scientific method is not a straight line, and it’s important to be persistent and persistent when faced with challenges. Being resilient is also important when dealing with the “red tape” aspects of research, such as the paperwork and bureaucracy that can often feel like a distraction from the exciting work of discovery.


In addition to scientific curiosity, being resilient, persistent, and ethical are important qualities for a researcher. It’s not just about making breakthroughs and discoveries, it’s also about making sure that the work is done thoroughly and ethically. It’s also important to care deeply about what it is that you’re doing and to have the determination to see your work through to completion, even when faced with obstacles.


Can you complete pre-med requirements while studying abroad or researching abroad?


Studying abroad or researching abroad can be a great opportunity for pre-med students to gain experience and knowledge about healthcare systems in other countries. Many universities offer classes that will count towards pre-med requirements, and some even offer funding for students to go abroad to do research over the summer.


One example of a program that offers research opportunities abroad is the Amgen Scholars program. This program is highly competitive and prestigious, and has posts at universities across the country as well as abroad. For example, the Carolyn Ska Institute in Sweden has an Amgen chapter that invites students to do research.


In addition to research opportunities, pre-med students can also fulfill general education requirements abroad, especially over the summer. Taking a writing class or a foreign language class abroad can be a great way to satisfy these requirements while also gaining a new perspective.


For pre-med students, learning a foreign language can also be very beneficial. Being able to communicate with patients who speak a different language can be a huge comfort for both the patient and the medical professional.


What are Yale’s growth initiatives?


Yale University is currently expanding in several areas, with a focus on STEM fields. One of the top growth areas for the university is neuroscience, as they are opening a new building and institute specifically for interdisciplinary research in this field. Additionally, Yale is increasing funding and hiring new faculty for their computer science, statistics, and data science departments.


The university is also investing in global affairs by opening the Jackson Institute, an interdisciplinary center for global affairs. Along with these specific areas of growth, Yale is undergoing a lot of construction and expansion, including the opening of a new humanities center and student center in the fall. This student center will include a dining hall, event space, and meeting space for extracurricular organizations.


In addition to these STEM and global affairs initiatives, Yale is also increasing mental health resources and hiring new faculty for the Yale Health center.