AU’s new Department of Neuroscience adjusts to a virtual semester
The department launched in July within the College of Arts and Sciences
American University, which has emphasized growing STEM in recent years, launched a new Department of Neuroscience and Behavior on July 1 within the College of Arts and Sciences.
The department aims to integrate CAS faculty into projects that improve the understanding of the interrelationship between the brain and behavior, according to the website. The department currently offers a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and a Ph.D. in behavior, cognition and neuroscience.
CAS professor Terry Davidson, who heads the new department, said students majoring in neuroscience prior to the department’s launch faced various challenges.
“One of the issues with the undergraduates was that, because they didn't belong to a department, they couldn't really compete for departmental awards like outstanding senior and things like that,” said Davidson, who was named a distinguished professor by the Board of Trustees in February. “Also the resources that were available to them were probably more limited perhaps than they might be now.”
Davidson said that the department’s founding will provide more attention toward neuroscience students and help garner resources for the rising field.
“Having a department helps us form its own distinction, which then will promote the research enterprise,” Davidson said. “It makes us more competitive for students when it comes to neuroscience programs, and also for external funding.”
Students like junior Donia Siroonian, a neuroscience major, now have a community of like-minded students to share similar goals with.
“I'm excited for us to just get more news out there and just more people knowing what's going on because I feel like for the longest time, people would ask me, ‘we have a neuroscience major at AU?’ and I would be like, ‘yes we do and it's a great [field],’” Siroonian said.
Siroonian’s passion for neuroscience sparked from an early age and she hopes to further expand it at AU.
“I was always drawn to that section in the science classes, and it was shortly after seventh grade that my grandmother got diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease,” Siroonian said. “And so I've spent a lot of time in hospitals, and in special health care for people with neurodegenerative diseases.”
In addition to this department, students are looking forward to the opportunities that the newly built Hall of Science will bring, as neuroscience is a lab-intensive field.
“With the new science building, it's going to be incredible to actually be able to be in labs, especially for neuroscience because we didn't get to do too many of them before,” Siroonian said. “The research is going to be able to grow, the classes are already getting more exciting and we're able to use more platforms and new technologies.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic and online classes, it has made it difficult for students to get the hands-on experience that they need in order to pursue a neuroscience profession.
“We're trying to do everything we can online, but for the most part, it's limiting how much time our students can spend on labs and to actually work in the lab, and our undergraduates, their lab courses are not the same as before,” Davidson said. “It's been difficult to get new activities going, and there's things that are slowing us in the sense of not only accomplishing what our mission is but also just getting the world to know we exist, we're out there.”
Although there have been challenges with online learning, Davidson said he is looking forward to what students and professors achieve with this growing field as new discoveries are made.
“I'm very proud of our faculty and the work the people we have in [this field have done],” Davidson said. “If we look around the country, there are neuroscience majors, and more and more neuroscience departments and so I think we're becoming more competitive for those people who want to do work in that area.”