arts&sciences | Spring 2011

Hands-on research: With Paul Lipton's guidance, Boston high school students examine sheep brains in a new neuroscience lab funded partly by a Howard Hughes grant.
Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Original Thinking

With the help of a $1.5-million grant, CAS undergrads have a new neuroscience lab space for hands-on research.

By Rachel Johnson

Jeffrey Wessell (CAS'11, SAR'11) prefers labs over lectures, and under his advisor, Paul Lipton, he's had the chance many undergrads never get—to engage in hands-on research. And he's not alone. As part of the growing push to involve BU undergraduates in research as early as possible, the neuroscience program has renovated lab space and overhauled the program to focus increasingly on applied research at the undergraduate level.

In addition to the 270 students now majoring in neuroscience, Lipton anticipates that about 85 more will enroll in the program for the upcoming academic year. This number represents a dramatic increase for a program that was created less than three years ago with only 17 students. Wessell, who will graduate this May with a double major in neuroscience and health science, says that students at every level want to do hands-on research, and Lipton, the neuroscience program's associate director, agrees. "To appreciate the nature of science and the processes of discovery that are the heart of neuro­science," he says, "it is essential that students do rather than see or read about or listen to. And the earlier they are exposed to this process, the better equipped they are."

The new neuroscience courses and lab space are funded in part by a $1.5-million grant to Boston University from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program, awarded in May 2010. The goal of the grant is to engage undergraduates in research early and often in their college careers, and to create the labs, courses, and faculty positions to support them. A large portion of the lab renovations include state-of-the-art lighting and technology upgrades that support the neuro­science program's areas of focus, initiatives like Alzheimer's research, studies on the brain and addictions, and investigations into the mind and memory loss. Lipton, other faculty leaders, and new neuroscience postdoctoral faculty fellows who also are funded by the grant, spent the early part of this year designing and preparing the new lab courses.

The refurbished lab space and program will open to BU undergraduates in the fall. This spring, the lab hosted some twenty science-minded local high school students in a program designed by Dana Gannon (CAS'11) and Matthew Cobb (CAS'11) for their Senior Independent Work for Distinction. The program aimed to expose tenth and eleventh graders to the neurosciences and the experience of a university campus, and Lipton expects that his undergraduates also gained invaluable experience, "thinking about and comparing the value of hands-on experiences versus lectures, and how students learn best," he says. This summer, five of those high school students will be chosen to continue working in the lab.

Wessell says he likes the direction the program is taking, allowing students to "further their undergraduate education in a nontraditional way." Lipton is pleased with the program's expansion because, he says, the changes get to the heart of what education should be. "Sitting through lectures is a largely passive process," he explains. "We risk disengagement and nurturing expectations of 'Just tell me what I need to know for the exam.' Science is about discovery. My hope is that our students will learn not only how to ask questions about the brain, but that they will become good and responsible consumers of science in general, and active thinkers in all areas of their lives."