AAMC Article

UAB Undergraduate Neuroscience Program

            The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Undergraduate Neuroscience Program (UNP) is relatively new (2009), and its implementation is a joint collaborative venture between the Department of Psychology in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and the Department of Neurobiology in the UAB School of Medicine (SoM). An “aha” moment occurred in 2006 when Dr. Carl McFarland (the Chair of Psychology in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences) and Dr. David Sweatt (Chair of Neurobiology in SoM) got together for a brainstorming session. They were pleasantly surprised to find that each had already begun to pursue the idea of a new inter-departmental and indeed pan-university collaborative effort to establish the first undergraduate Neuroscience B.S. program in the state of Alabama. The driving concept was to form an innovative alliance between the SoM and CAS, each bringing to the new B.S. program their respective strengths in cutting-edge biomedical research and top-notch undergraduate teaching and training. With the blessings of then-Provost Dr. Eli Capiluoto and then-SoM Dean Dr. Bob Rich, Sweatt and McFarland recruited inaugural (and continuing) Program Director Dr. Anne Theibert, who led the development of what has quickly become an outstanding and highly successful program. Currently, Dr. Theibert and Dr. McFarland serve jointly as the key leaders of the program.

            How successful is the program? The program currently has 120 majors, each of whom is an honors student. The average ACT of entering freshmen each year is 32 (98th percentile) and the average high school GPA is 4.30/4.00. As for current majors, their average GPA is 3.80, despite a curriculum that includes many of the most demanding courses at UAB. More than 90% of the UNP graduates attend medical school, graduate school, or health professional school, in order to pursue career goals in medicine, research, pharmacy, physical, or behavioral therapy. The goal of the UNP is not just to produce graduates with a degree in neuroscience, but to set the stage for students to develop into future neuroscientists. By the time UNP students are seniors, they are capable of presenting their thesis research to an audience of students and faculty, much in the manner of a graduate student. In fact, many of the students have published research and presented at national or regional meetings before graduation.

Little of this success would have been possible without the immense contribution of various UAB SoM departments and faculty. An important point to be made is that undergraduate teaching and training is a requirement for the CAS at any university. Creating and running undergraduate programs is part of the job. It is clearly not within the prescribed mission for a medical school. In other words, Deans of the UAB SoM including Drs. Bob Rich, Ray Watts, and Selwyn Vickers generously agreed to provide departmental funds (Neurobiology) and faculty time and effort for this unprecedented partnership. At present, nearly 100 faculty members have agreed to serve as research mentors for the UNP majors, the vast majority of whom are from the SoM.

The UNP success is basely largely on the mentorship model. Students are required to spend a minimum of two years in a research laboratory (with many spending all four years), so each mentor’s commitment is substantial. Unsurprisingly, the adopted approach is based on the view is that a student cannot learn to be a scientist simply by enrolling in laboratory courses, reading research papers, and attending research presentations. Rather, through hands-on mentored research, the culture and reality of scientific research is acquired both directly and indirectly. UNP majors are expected to “behave as if you are a graduate student,” and they become responsible and productive members of a research lab. In return, the SoM faculty and laboratories have benefitted in unexpected ways from this partnership. Involvement in the UNP has allowed many SoM faculty to broaden their portfolios, and combine a more traditional academic-CAS mindset with their funded research programs. Moreover, the UNP has generated additional mentorship opportunities for newly recruited faculty, postdoctoral fellows and senior graduate students, augmenting their career development.

            The program’s directors are aware of the upcoming changes to the MCAT and medical education in general. The MCAT 2015 will place new emphasis on behavior, ethics, research design and statistics, while deemphasizing organic chemistry, physics, etc. Dr. Michael Friedlander, a member of theAAMC MR5 Committee as well as the AAMC-HHMI committee on the Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians,has indicated that physicians of the future will be trained as “scientist physicians,” better able to understand and communicate new medical science to patients and colleagues. The Neuroscience B.S. program at UAB provides extensive education and training in precisely the areas of greatest focus on the MCAT 2015. A number of newly created Neuroscience courses offered in both Neurobiology and Psychology, coupled with three years of intense laboratory engagement under the direction of a neuroscience mentor, produce what is one of the best environments for undergraduate scientific training in the nation. Under the continuing leadership of UAB President Dr. Ray Watts, the expectation is to develop additional innovative School of Medicine/College of Arts and Sciences collaborations at UAB.





For additional information please go to:  www.unp.uab.edu