News Center

News from the Reed College public affairs office

Reed Launches Neuroscience Major

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on September 11, 2017 09:24 AM

Starting this semester, Reed is offering a major in neuroscience, making it the first college in Portland to provide undergraduates with a full immersion in the field, and one of very few in the Pacific Northwest.

Neuroscience is sometimes considered a specialized area that can only be pursued by graduate students at big R1 research institutions. But recent developments in technology have put powerful research tools within the reach of undergraduate colleges. At the same time, researchers are coming to understand that success in neuroscience requires requires skills that are the hallmark of a liberal-arts education: critical thinking, creativity, and teamwork.

“The neuroscience major harnesses existing strengths to everyone's benefit,” says Prof. Nigel Nicholson, Dean of the Faculty. “It recognizes the innovative work being done in the field by Reed faculty members in the biology and psychology departments, builds on the excellent working relationship between the two departments, and responds to growing student interest in this important area.”

“Neuroscience research has blossomed in recent years, leading to exciting new discoveries at an ever increasing rate,” says Larry Sherman ’86, a neuroscience professor at Oregon Health and Science University who serves as president of the Oregon chapter of the Society for Neuroscience and is himself a Reed grad. “Having a neuroscience major at Reed will be of great value to the growing neuroscience research community both in Oregon and worldwide. The excellent research experience that Reed students enjoy, along with their training in critical thinking and writing, will be invaluable as they join the ranks of biomedical researchers and clinicians tackling the greatest challenges behind the human brain and nervous system.”

Neuroscience at Reed focuses on understanding the relationship between the brain and behavior. Integrating ideas and techniques from anatomy, physiology, chemistry, psychology, molecular biology, and ethology.

Reed has offered advanced courses and rigorous training in neuroscience for many years. But until now, students never had the opportunity to form a cohesive cohort and major in the field.

“We’re really excited,” says Prof. Paul Currie [psychology], one of the driving forces behind the initiative.

The new major boasts an imposing set of requirements. Students will take at least five units in biology, five in psychology, two in math, two in chemistry, and two more in either chemistry or physics. They also have to pass a junior qual in both biology and psychology, write a senior thesis, and complete all the other coursework required of Reed students.

The decision is the product of two complementary forces. First, the faculty have developed an outstanding expertise in neuroscience, including the genomic basis of behavior, the mindbending world of sensory substitution, and the “hunger hormone.”

But perhaps more important, Reed students have demonstrated extraordinary interest in neuroscience. Over the last decade, they have authored dozens of papers in prominent journals.

In fact, the impetus for this neuroscience major was a grassroots effort initiated by student leaders Leah Cepko ’16 and Anna Fimmel ’14, who asked the faculty to establish a program in 2012. “They were tremendously enthusiastic,” says Prof. Suzy Renn [biology], who is instrumental in creating the new program. “That really sparked the discussion.”

Roughly eight seniors are expected to write theses in neuroscience in the fall, and nine juniors plan to do the same two years from now.

A Proud Tradition

The major builds on a proud tradition of neuroscientific research at Reed. In the 1960s, Reed biology students investigated the “shadow reflex” of barnacles. In the 1970s, psychology students found a way to block pain in rats by stimulating the brain stem. More recently, Reed students have dug into synaesthesia and the hunger hormone. Many Reed grads have become prominent neuroscience researchers.

“Long before I arrived, Reed had been turning out neuroscientists at an astounding rate,” says Prof. Renn.

Prominent Reed alumni in neuroscience include:  Richard F Thompson ’52, the first neuroscientist to identify and map the neural circuits responsible for Pavlovian learning; Anne Calof ’78, who won the RARE Champion of Hope in Science Award for identifying the causative gene of Cornelia de Lange Syndrome; Gina Turrigiano ’84, who won the Human Frontier Science Program’s Nakasone Award for her pioneering work on homeostatic plasticity in the nervous system; and Larry Sherman ’86, who Investigates ways to help the brain repair myelin sheaths in multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Reed has added several new majors in the last few years, including dance, computer science, environmental studies, and comparative literature.