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Pardee Distinguished Lecture, by Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, December 2, 6 p.m., SMG Auditorium

Week of 7 November 2003· Vol. VII, No. 11

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Anatomy of a degree
Redefining doctorate in neuroscience to keep pace with advances in field

By Tim Stoddard

Mark Moss, a MED professor of medicine and chairman of the department of anatomy and neurobiology. Photo by Claire Folger


Mark Moss, a MED professor of medicine and chairman of the department of anatomy and neurobiology. Photo by Claire Folger


For neuroscientists such as Mark Moss, the past decade has often felt like a scientific roller coaster, as discoveries in brain-related research have soared, swooped, and swerved in unpredictable ways. It’s been an exciting ride, but Moss and other researchers have an uneasy feeling about where the discipline of neuroscience is going. The problem, he says, is that while neuroscience is among the fastest growing scientific disciplines, it is charging ahead without sufficient concern for the rising generation of Ph.D.s, who may not be able to keep up with the mushrooming body of knowledge.

“ How are we going to manage the exponential increase in information and knowledge about the brain, and how should we disseminate it now as compared to 20 years ago?” asks Moss, a MED professor of medicine and chairman of the department of anatomy and neurobiology. “Right now, it’s a haphazard system. We generate Ph.D.s and just send them out into academia. The process relies more on tradition than on a shared vision of the purpose of doctoral education. No one seems to know if there are problems with the discipline.”

Moss and a team of faculty and graduate students are working to change that. This fall, the MED department of anatomy and neurobiology was selected by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to participate in the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID), a multiyear research program aimed at invigorating doctoral education in six disciplines: history, English, education, mathematics, chemistry, and neuroscience. The 51 CID partner sites at universities around the country will begin an extensive review process to clarify the goals of doctoral education in their respective disciplines, and will experiment with new teaching methods to better meet these goals.

Moss’ team is one of eight CID partners focusing on neuroscience. With Todd Hoagland, a MED assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology, Peter Bergethon, a MED adjunct assistant professor of biochemistry, Dan Roe, a postdoctoral fellow, and graduate student Maureen Estevez (MED’07), Moss will begin by identifying the mission of the doctorate and master’s degree programs in anatomy and neurobiology at BU. “It’s an experiment,” Moss says. “We’re trying to reevaluate how the doctorate in anatomy can be best applied to our present educational system and to society. The fundamental question is, what does the doctorate mean now?”

Traditionally, he says, a Ph.D. in neuroscience was a one-way ticket to academia, where an individual would continue with teaching and research, and specialize in anything from large scale studies of behavior and neuroimaging to the cellular level in neurophysiology. “Now I think there is some issue about what we are actually arming our Ph.D. candidates with in terms of their ability to get jobs,” he says. “Neuroscience is perhaps the most rapidly growing discipline in terms of the number of Ph.D.s being produced. So are there enough jobs for these individuals in the traditional academic medical track that they’re being prepared for?”

One issue the team will address is whether an individual with a Ph.D. in anatomy should be teaching at the undergraduate level, in medical and dental schools, or even in high schools. Another is whether doctoral programs focus too much on preparing experts instead of teachers. “We’re running out of people to teach in the biomedical sciences,” Moss says. “In many cases, there are not people to replace the last generation of teachers.”

To help reverse that trend, the department is now developing a teacher training module for master’s and Ph.D. candidates in anatomy and neurobiology, called the Vesalius program (named after the 16th-century Belgian father of anatomy). “Before we applied for the CID, our department had already been thinking about alternative tracks for the Ph.D. in neuroscience,” Moss says. “One of them was developing teaching expertise in the biomedical sciences.” Vesalius students serve as teaching fellows in the MED and SDM courses of gross anatomy, neuroscience, and histology. Moss says the program will someday expand into a more extensive teacher-training program in other disciplines too. “We’re hoping that it will be adopted as a model by other basic sciences and clinical departments within BU. We’ve also had inquiries about the program from other schools around the country.”

As Moss’ team dissects the doctorate, it will report its findings at annual meetings of the CID partners. The long-term goal is to have other neuroscience programs adopt the lessons learned through the initiative, Moss says, and to ensure that the discipline is represented by both well-trained teachers and skilled researchers. “Education in neuroscience is not limited simply to an evolving body of factual knowledge,” he says. “It includes the integral art and cognitive skills that underlie it. It’s more than just the facts. It’s the processes that evolve for successful teaching.”


7 November 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations