Brain Game: Why UVA Picked the Right Time to Expand Neuroscience Major

A man's hand pointing at a research poster hanging on a bulletin board

Just over a month after its launch at the University of Virginia last year, the Program in Fundamental Neuroscience held what its director called a “mini symposium” for first-year students.

Turns out there wasn’t much “mini” about it.

“We thought we’d get, like, 50 students,” Sarah Kucenas said, “and 400 showed up. It was standing room only. They were sitting on the steps.”

Kucenas, a biology professor, officially became director of the Program in Fundamental Neuroscience when it began in July 2021, behind the support of the College of Arts & Sciences and its donors. Kucenas and core faculty members from both the psychology and biology departments, including Jianhua “JC” Cang, Paul T. Jones II Jefferson Scholars Foundation Professor, saw a growing interest in the neuroscience major and felt the timing was right to expand.

Confirming this notion was an overflow crowd at the Chemistry Building on the eve of the first day of fall semester classes.

A student gestures toward a poster while speaking to another student
The first year for the Program in Fundamental Neuroscience wrapped with a retreat at Runk Dining Hall. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“Everybody who’s involved in this, they have a mission of diversifying not just neuroscience, but science,” Kucenas said. “And the fact that we saw a room that was diverse, with many female scientists, many people of color, people with different religious backgrounds – it was really heartening that the future was represented. Humanity was represented in that room.

“And I think that was incredible to us because it showed we were on the right track. Diversifying the major, expanding it, making it accessible was absolutely the right thing to do.”

The transition from neuroscience as a major to a full-blown program with dedicated faculty, additional classes and more students started in 2021-22. Year 1 of the “PFN,” as those on the inside have come to call it, was a success, recent graduate Jessica Laudie said.

“It’s drastically changed for the better,” Laudie, who conducted research in the Deppmann Lab, said during a recent program retreat at Runk Dining Hall that included seminars, poster sessions and presentations. “The communication between the students and faculty is so much better now. Getting to go to events like this and interacting with faculty has been so amazing.”

When UVA began offering neuroscience – the study of the brain and nervous system – as a major in 2003, it was one of the first schools in the country to do so. Nearly two decades later, the University remains on the cutting edge with this expansion – going from a limit of 25 students admitted to more than 50 in the program’s official first year, and with plans to host as many as 200 in the near future. A newly renovated space in Gilmer Hall will begin to house the program this summer, allowing for more collaboration among departments, such as biology and psychology.

“Gilmer Hall will be home to most neuroscientists in the College, going from, if you will, the molecules to the mind,” Cang said. “We’ll go from molecular neuroscience to cognitive neuroscience. It really goes through the whole spectrum of neuroscience. I’m really excited about that.”

As are UVA students. But why has this complex topic become so popular among young people?

Kucenas has a couple theories.

“One is people are living longer, so they have family members affected by neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” she said. “They might have participated in the ALS ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ when they were kids. They were seeing that.

“Also, it’s just a really interesting way to approach science and medicine. A lot of our students are pre-med or pre-health, and neuroscience is a really great way to dig into that bigger picture of helping humanity.”

A student explains information on a poster two three other event participates
Director Sarah Kucenas, center, has seen interest in neuroscience grow across Grounds over the last few years. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Julia Hall, a rising fourth-year student from Glenwood, Maryland, was inspired to get into neuroscience after watching her grandfather suffer from Alzheimer’s, a common form of dementia that can lead to brain shrinkage and memory loss, among other setbacks. Her research, conducted in the Deppmann Lab, has concentrated on nerve degeneration and the underlying biological mechanisms of Alzheimer’s.

“We’re trying to see what is causing the neuron death that you see in Alzheimer’s and ALS,” Hall said. “This might have an effect on treatments, because there’s not really a treatment protocol for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Xander Atalay, a rising fourth-year student from East Greenwich, Rhode Island, is using neuroimaging research, done in the Druzgal Lab, to find relationship patterns between performance and screen-time usage among adolescents.

“It is really interesting because in some of these metrics that we use to quantify development, we see actually more development in kids with an increase in screen time in certain regions of the brain,” Atalay said.

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Alex Briegel, a recent graduate from the Erisir Lab who will soon purse a doctorate in neuroscience at Northwestern University, said there’s a practical reason for why more students are exploring the subject.

“A big part of neuroscience is understanding the brain, which is understanding yourself,” he said. “If you understand how the brain works, then you can try to understand why you might do the things you do, or why other people you see do the things they do.”

With the launch of the program, UVA has opened itself to more students who might carry this heightened sense of curiosity.

“The brain is so complex, neuroscience is so important for every aspect of our life,” Cang said. “How we see, how we move around – that’s neuroscience. It could be as basic as that, but also how we make decisions – that’s cognitive neuroscience. How we feel emotions, why are we afraid of certain things or how we fall in love. All those really, really important emotions and behaviors of the human existence – that’s the brain. That’s neuroscience.”

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