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Undergraduate neuroscience degree program eyes 2021 start

Students working at a wet lab bench.

Students interested in brain research have been eager for an undergraduate neuroscience program at the University of British Columbia, and thanks to the leadership of faculty including Dr. Tim O’Connor, the program inches ever closer to reality.

There are currently a number of neuroscience courses available to undergraduate students, but they are scattered across the faculties of science, arts, and medicine, making it difficult and inefficient for an interested student to cobble together a foundational neuroscience education. In 2017, Alireza Kamyabi (PI: Dr. Brian MacVicar) distributed a student survey on behalf of the UBC Undergraduate Neuroscience Club with the intent to understand student perspectives on a potential undergraduate neuroscience degree program; the survey confirmed what Kamyabi had suspected.

“Our survey shows that students are really interested in having a comprehensive neuroscience program with a greater breadth of topics and more advance courses that delve deeper into important areas of research such as neurodegenerative diseases and computational neuroscience," said Kamyabi. "Fortunately, UBC has excellent faculty in most of these fields, enabling us to offer a world-class neuroscience program."

An undergraduate neuroscience major would consolidate neuroscience education under a single banner, and would grant students the opportunity to conduct lab-based research at benches across UBC’s neuroscience research facilities. There is no formal mechanism in place for undergraduate students to gain that experience, and so undergraduate students interested in neuroscience pursue their education in brain research through directed studies or co-op studies, or, as Kamyabi did, by volunteering in labs across campus.

“There is wide-ranging support for the program,” said Dr. O’Connor, “we’re just working out the details.”

The details include ironing out the program budget and deciding where the administrative component of the program will be situated on campus.

“I think there is a great opportunity for the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, to play an important role in the program,” said O’Connor. “There students would have access to research opportunities and the opportunity to build relationships within the neuroscience community, giving them a solid foundation if they decide to pursue graduate studies later on.”

A working group with representatives from Medicine (Dr. O’Connor), Science (Dr. Vanessa Auld) and Arts (Drs. Steve Barnes and Liisa Galea) was established last year to determine the requirements for the program, which include establishing the curriculum in addition to an economic assessment to determine the need for neuroscience program graduates. This included a survey of public and private sector industry partners; in order to approve the program, the BC Ministry of Advanced Education needs to agree that there is a need for neuroscience education at the undergraduate level, and that there are career opportunities for students who complete the program. In addition, the program needs approval from UBC’s Science Curriculum Committee and the UBC Senate.

“Industry feedback has been positive so far,” said Dr. O’Connor. “We’re confident that there’s value in a Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience; to educate these students, we’d be bringing instructors in from a wide range of faculties and departments, offering a truly interdisciplinary education.”

While the program is still in development, with budgetary, curriculum, and jurisdictional issues still to be sorted out, Dr. O’Connor is hopeful that the program can begin at the start of the 2021/22 Academic Year, with the first cohort of students declaring their major in 2022/23.

For Kamyabi, who is now a Master’s student in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, the steps the committee has taken to making an undergraduate neuroscience education a reality have been encouraging.

“Neuroscience could be key to solving many of the mental health challenges we face as a society,” said Kamyabi. “UBC has the resources and faculty to train the next generation of scientific leaders who will move the field forward, and I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish so far.”