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$1.5 Million Award to Neuroscience Program

Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant opens lab research to students

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Paul Lipton heads the effort to revamp the CAS neuroscience program.

Neuroscience undergraduates will get broader laboratory experience, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that bolsters BU’s increasingly popular brain research program.

The program will use the funds to revamp its introductory neuroscience course from lecture-based to one embracing hands-on research. The new lab space and course will debut in the 2011-2012 academic year.

The goal is to open the laboratory to students — most of whom currently don’t get involved in research until their junior or senior year — much earlier, according to Paul Lipton (GRS’01), a College of Arts & Sciences research assistant professor and academic director of the undergraduate neuroscience program.

Specifically, the grant will underwrite renovations to lab space, purchase of computers and equipment to analyze brain tissue and do animal studies, and hire postdoctoral faculty fellows, says Lipton.

While neuroscience will be the second most popular science major at CAS this fall, only 4 of last year’s 17 graduating majors did enough original research to finish an honors thesis.

“Students learn best by doing,” says Lipton. “Neuroscience progress is made by conducting experiments in the lab.” He anticipates an influx of more than 220 neuroscience majors this fall, a number surpassed only by biology majors — impressive growth for a program that became a major only a year and a half ago.

The revised course will expand the kind of opportunities Steve Ramirez (CAS’10) was able to experience. Ramirez got into the lab freshman year, researching the effects of language on the brain. In subsequent lab projects, he probed protein interactions promoting Alzheimer’s disease and memory formation in rodent brains. All this research “was the most fundamental part of my education at BU,” he says.

“Lab research is the reason I got into grad school, because grad schools want to know that you can hit the ground running as a scientist,” says Ramirez, who will begin Ph.D. work at MIT this summer.

“The value of neuroscience research is best seen in how it has already impacted the field of psychiatry and mental health,” contributing to knowledge about ailments such as depression and anxiety, says Lipton. “As the field matures, further innovation will yield even greater benefits to our ability to treat dysfunctions of the three-pound mass of tissue that defines who we are.”

The grant “provides a major advance to train a new generation of neuroscientists,” says Howard Eichenbaum, a CAS professor of psychology and director of the Center for Memory and Brain.

The grant to BU is part of $79 million dispensed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to 50 universities across the country to improve science education. BU made the cut from among 165 schools seeking this particular type of grant. The University was one of only 18 recipients that were not current HHMI grantees, says Michael Dettelbach, the University’s director of corporate and foundation relations.

“By selecting these 50 grantees, we highlight areas and approaches that we think are particularly powerful,” says David Asai, director of the institute’s precollege and undergraduate programs.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on $1.5 Million Award to Neuroscience Program

  • Tom on 05.21.2010 at 1:52 pm

    This is awesome news! I am excited that my kids have this kind of option at BU. It may even make BU a more appealing school for my kids (esp. after going to one of the program’s Open House sessions-terrific!) I LOVE that we’re getting recognition from
    ultra-competitive granting institutions like HHMI. Go Terriers!

  • Anonymous on 05.21.2010 at 3:29 pm

    Sounds great. As a physics major now focusing on neurobio, this gives me another avenue of research work.

  • Anonymous on 05.26.2010 at 10:37 pm

    I hope they emphasize *alternatives* to animal research. A grant like this can go a long way both for neuroscience students and for people who want cutting-edge, cruelty-free technologies.

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