Wanted: A New Concentration

Neuroscience Students Need Their Own Department

"The Committee on Degrees in Psychobiology was established to meet the needs of students interested in the study of Neuroscience. The student must be allowed to cross the traditional departmental lines in order to learn about the mechanisms and functions of the behavior of organisms."

--a possible description of the psychobiology concentration for the University's Fields of Concentration guide.

In the past few years, most of the leading universities have made organizational changes in order to meet the needs of the growing number of students interested in studying neuroscience; Harvard, however, is one of the few universities which has taken little action to encourage its students in this discipline. Each year Biology 25, "Neurobiology," a 'tween level (above introductory) course in the Biology Department, has more students than any other 'tween level course. Similarly, Psych & Soc, Rel, 1100, "Physiological Psychology," one of the largest courses offered in the Psychology Department, has tripled in size from when it was first offered only a few years ago. Collectively, Professors John E. Dowling '56 and Ronald L. Calabrese, assistant professor of Biology (neurobiology) and Professors James R. Stellar, assistant professor of Psychology and Dale R. Corbett, assistant professor of Psychology (psychobiology) receive some of the highest ratings to be found in the CUE guide (they average 6.4 out of 7). Students who have taken courses from these professors find the courses to be "instrumental" to their learning as well as very exciting. So what is Harvard doing for these enthusiastic neuroscience students?--Not as much as most other leading universities.

The current route an undergraduate has to pursue an interest in psychobiology at Harvard is through the Special Concentrations Committee. A student must carefully examine his commitment to a program of 10.0 full courses (devised by Corbett, Dowling and Stellar), and find an advisor to work with as well as a laboratory to work in. These considerations are prerequisite for students intending to gain a through background in neuroscience; however, students are often deterred from investigating neuroscience at Harvard due to the officials nature (as well as discouraging, for many who try) of Special Concentrations.

In addition, in order to combine concentrations, a student must fulfill all courses--an impossible alternative to any students who have not discovered psychobiology before the end of their Freshman year. Even with the support of an advisor, students have found that getting approval for an inter-departmental thesis project can be as wearisome as getting a whole Special Concentration approved. Thus, neither the Psychology Department nor the Biology Department accommodates the psychobiology student due to what appears to be a distinct conviction held by the two departments that somehow their fields are not related.


It would be unfair to blame Harvard for upholding the dichotomy between psychology and biology which historically exists within neuroscience research; yet, at the same time, we, neuroscience students, must look toward our university to have a more progressive attitude. We need to learn what "neuroscience" encompasses so that we can decide for ourselves they we wish to approach the study of the biological basis of behavior. Most importantly, a university has responsibility to make information available to both undergraduates and prospective students about the kinds of brain research being conducted in its area. The Boston area is a center of some of the most advanced and exciting neuroscience research this country has to offer. Where is the information located that tells us what the numerous faculty members and affiliates throughout the Harvard system are working on? There exists no organized and readily available list of names of people who would be interested to have students talk to them or work with them. Harvard desperately needs some systematic body to compile information about the numerous resources available in this area as well as encourage interested students to seek them out.

What Other Universities Have

The University of Pennsylvania has been the most successful of the leading universities at implementing a major called "The Biological Basis of Behavior." It started out with 49 students in 1979 and currently has over 170, making it the third largest major in the school. Brown University also has a Neuroscience major (incorporating everything from neurobiology to artificial intelligence), but that is in addition to their Bio-Med and Human Biology majors which also encourage the students to pursue neuroscience research within the Biology and Psychology Departments. Northwestern has a "Neuroscience Program" designed for students to major in the field (if accepted) or to focus their existing Psychology or biology majors with seminars, research and a set sequence of courses. As Dr. Routtenberg, head of Northwestern's program, explained, "Most importantly, it is a way to make students aware" of the field of neuroscience. Stanford University has a major called Human Biology, one of the two largest majors, which incorporates a very wide selection of courses having to do with "the human organism;" one-quarter of these "Hum-Bio" students elect of follow an advanced neuroscience sequence which may include everything from the biochemistry of nerve cells to the Psychology of motivation. A Princeton student can concentrate in Physiological Psychology within the Psychology Department and then choose to work with any of the 15 to 16 members of the "Neuroscience Staff" made up of professors from all of the related disciplines.

Besides offering an organized program to prospective neuroscience undergraduates, these schools have one other important component in common; they have several tenured faculty members on their neuroscience staff. Psychobiology is apparently not an accepted field at Harvard; there is no tenured faculty in Physiological Psychology and only one tenured faculty member in Neurobiology (on this side of the river). Under these circumstances. Harvard does not attract many graduate students interested in Psychobiology; this limits the number of contacts available to students for learning about others' experiences with in the field.

What Harvard Can Do

If Harvard instituted a Standing Committee on the Biological Basis of Behavior, it could encompass a wide range of faculty members--both tenured and non-tenured--as well as Harvard Affiliates in the areas of psychology, biology, anatomy, psychiatry, pharmacology and anthropology. The committee could be a resource of ideas, experiences and opportunities, available to both concentrators and non-concentrators who want to know what the study of Brain and Behavior is all about. A Standing Committee may not be the immediate solution to all of the problems encountered by students interested in neuroscience, but some progress must be made by the university to recognize psychobiology as an interdisciplinary and acceptable field of study for the Harvard undergraduate.

What You Can Do

If you are at all interested in studying neuroscience at Harvard, there you must make yourself heard. Write a letter to the head of your department so that he will know how you feel. Also, you can contact any of the following psychobiology students if you have questions, suggestions or criticisms:





We want Harvard to let everyone who is interested in neuroscience have the opportunity to study it.

Laura A. Feigenbaum '84 is a special concentrator in psychobiology