Popularity in Brain Science Grows As More Students Join Course IX

In recent years, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences has seen increases in size and renown. Situated at the corner of Vassar and Main Streets, the glass-paneled building, which houses the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is also home to both the graduate and undergraduate Course IX programs.

The graduate program was founded in the 1960s, followed by the undergraduate program in the 1980s. The department joined the School of Science in 1993.

The department currently has 163 undergraduate students and 93 graduate students, as well as 47 faculty members. With a 10 percent annual increase in enrollment since 1999, Course IX is a rapidly expanding major. The major focuses on the study of the human brain from the molecular level to the brain’s effect on human interaction.

The department is still constantly changing, said Susan S. Lanza, BCS undergraduate administrator. New classes and seminars are added, and feedback from students and faculty allow the program to continue to develop. Lanza also said that changes are initiated to keep up with current research and to integrate new faculty hires.

For students, these changes mean both more focused classes in specific subjects and broader classes that cover basic brain and cognitive science concepts. These changes “are meant to allow students to have more exposure to things outside of the mainstream approach to learning,” Lanza said.

One of the greatest changes in recent years is the unification of BCS faculty in Building 46. Prior to the building’s opening in 2005, BCS faculty were spread among Buildings E18, E19, E25, and NE20. The additional space also allowed for the hiring of new faculty.

BCS, like many other departments at MIT, existed as a graduate program first. The department was founded by Professor Hans-Lukas Teuber in 1964 as the Department of Psychology. The undergraduate program began in 1986, and “has classes geared to introductory levels,” Lanza said, including Introduction to Psychology (9.00), Introduction to Neuroscience (9.01), and a course on statistics.

Besides introductory courses, requirements for the undergraduate program also include one department laboratory course and participation in research. Six core subjects from neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, and cognitive science concentrations complete the undergraduate degree requirements. “The requirements are not that hard to fulfill,” Julia C. Fong ’09 said.

Many joint classes are offered to students interested in interdisciplinary studies — dual appointment faculty and interdepartmental research collaborations provide opportunities for students to work within other majors. “I might minor in Course 7 or Course 6, which would involve fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] programming,” Fong said.

Undergraduates enter a variety of professions after graduation. According to Lanza, one-third usually enter medical school, one-third enter graduate or law school, and the remaining third enter industry. “With an MIT degree, you can sell yourself to any job that you want,” Lanza said. “You have the right skill set.”

The undergraduate program was revamped in 1996 with the addition of seven courses and the neuroscience concentration.

The BCS graduate program offers four tracks: Cellular and Molecular, Systems Neuroscience, Computation, and Cognitive Neuroscience. Prospective students apply to a certain track but can change any time during their four to six years in the program.

Brandy J. Baker, who advises BCS graduate students, said that graduate introductory classes are very broad but quickly channel into a more specific curriculum. Seminars focus on specific aspects of BCS studies while others provide instruction on practical skills. For example, one seminar guides graduate students through the process of applying for a fellowship, Baker said.

Baker also said that most students spend their hours researching their thesis and dissertation. Almost all students finish the program with some type of scientific publication.

Typically, the first year of the graduate program is divided evenly between laboratory work and classes, and most students finish their courses by the end of their second year. “[BCS offers] a broad array of research and is very flexible,” Caroline A. Runyan G, a graduate student in the BCS Department, said. However, Runyan said she wishes that there were more foundation classes like anatomy, because incoming students have varying backgrounds.

Course IX graduate students also collaborate with other programs and universities, such as the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Laboratory, Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard University, Boston University, and Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s a very multidisciplinary field that incorporates biology, psychology, and statistics,” among other fields, Runyan said.

According to Baker, graduate students tend to enter academia as professors and faculty after finishing the program.

Beyond the classroom, BCS also offers opportunities for the greater MIT community to learn about neuroscience. Seminars, including weekly Friday talks, are regularly scheduled.