Undergraduate Neuroscience Program History

In 2006, the UAB School of Medicine convinced Dr. J. David Sweatt, one of the nation's top neuroscientists, to move to Birmingham to chair the university's Department of Neurobiology and to direct the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Research Institute.  Soon after arriving, Dr. Sweatt became a member of the UAB Comprehensive Neuroscience Steering Committee consisting of several department chairs and center directors.  Following one meeting in particular, Dr. Sweatt was asked by Dr. Carl McFarland, then chair of the Department of Psychology, about his long journey from high school in Montgomery, Alabama, to a bachelor's degree at the University of South Alabama, a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, and post-doctoral work with Nobel laureate, Eric Kandel, at Columbia University to his current stature in the field conducting groundbreaking research on the biochemical mechanisms underlying learning and memory.  Dr. McFarland pursued this discussion by asking Dr. Sweatt if he had thought about making this process a bit more accessible for intellectually talented Alabama high school students.  He said, "Yes!"

You see, one of the obstacles for undergraduate students interested in brain science is the fact that neuroscience is only rarely offered as an undergraduate program in the United States.  A good portion of neuroscience research is conducted within medical school, basic science and clinical departments, such as neurobiology, physiology, cell biology, biochemistry, neurology, psychiatry, etc.  Typically, these departments and their faculty are far removed from undergraduate programs and students.  The vast majority of undergraduate students in the United States must wait until they enter graduate school to begin the study of neuroscience and to benefit from the direct mentorship of these scientists.  This delay serves as an effective obstacle to many young aspiring scientists and likely prevents the emergence of a large number of potential young "David Sweatts!"  Drs. Sweatt and McFarland quickly agreed to come up with a plan to remedy this problem.  At that moment, the idea for a fully collaborative Academic Affairs/School of Medicine program focusing on the best young science students was generated.  It would become the first such collaborative endeavor in the history of UAB. 

During the ensuing 18 months, a large number of individual scientists agreed to participate as mentors and university administrators agreed to support an unusual program, seeking approval from a series of university faculty committees, and finally persuading the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees and the Alabama Committee on Higher Education to grant system and state approval for our endeavor.  Early in the process, Drs. Sweatt and McFarland convinced Dr. Anne Theibert, Associate Professor of Neurobiology, to become the first director of the program.  Dr. Theibert quickly became the author of the program proposal, a document that required months of planning supported by extensive discussion with faculty and research into existing neuroscience programs at some of the nation's most prestigious universities (e.g., Johns Hopkins, California Irvine, Brown).  Dr. Theibert also prepared extensive documentation for the program and attended several meetings with Drs. Sweatt and McFarland defending and promoting the proposal to various review committees.  On Nov. 14, 2008 the UAB Undergraduate Neuroscience Major received final approval from the Board of Trustees. 

We are proud to say that our new program was immediately blessed by applications from several outstanding students.  Many of these students were admitted to the program following an extensive interview process.  You can read about the members of our inaugural class elsewhere on this site.  Rest assured that we will update our history as the program grows, prospers, and hopefully begins to produce the future stars of brain science!