The world has benefitted from many great scientists who were able to overcome difficult circumstances after being given an opportunity to better themselves through education.
Joseph Henry, born to young Scottish immigrants, discovered electromagnetic self-induction and is considered one of the great American scientists of the 19th century. George Washington Carver rose above slavery to develop crop-rotation methods for conserving nutrients in soil and discover hundreds of new uses for crops including the peanut. George Armitage Miller, though born to a poor West Virginia family in 1920, is considered by some to be one of the top 10 psychologists of the past 100 years. All three credited the chance to earn an education as a key to their success.
|David Sweatt (left) and Anne Theibert (right) believe the new undergraduate neuroscience program will greatly benefit the Southeast.
David Sweatt, Ph.D., professor and chair of Neurobiology and an internationally renowned researcher, relates to the scientists’ backgrounds. He credits his professional success to the opportunity to pursue a high-end education.
Sweatt grew up in Montgomery in a family of modest means. He and his sisters were the first in their family to graduate high school. Sweatt also graduated from the University of South Alabama, received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Columbia University Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, working on memory mechanisms in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel.
Sweatt came to UAB in 2006 as the director of the new Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute and the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair of Neurobiology. But he also came home with a personal goal — to have a positive influence on education in the state of Alabama.
“That’s part of my mission in coming home,” Sweatt says. “I know from personal experience that there are many smart young people in Alabama who may need to stay in state because of circumstances or background and economic reasons.”
Sweatt collaborated with Psychology Professor Carl McFarland, Ph.D., who chaired the Psychology department from 1982-2008, and neurobiologist Anne Theibert, Ph.D., to create the UAB Undergraduate Neuroscience Program — one of the few of its kind in the Southeast — that enrolled its first 14 students this fall.
Their goal was simple, yet substantial: Create a program on par with the best neuroscience programs in the country — including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Columbia and Stanford — and give prospective college students in Alabama an opportunity to complete a top-notch, national caliber undergraduate program in neuroscience.
“I wanted to put together a first-rate educational opportunity for undergraduate students who want to go to college in Alabama,” Sweatt says. “This is a unique program. There aren’t many in the country that are a joint program for a bachelor’s degree offered by the School of Medicine.
“This is a collaborative effort between the Neurobiology department in the School of Medicine and the Psychology department in the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences,” Sweatt says. “The idea is to offer a research-intensive honors program for undergraduate students interested in neuroscience.”
Only a handful of neuroscience undergraduate degree programs exist in the Southeast, says McFarland. Of more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, fewer than 100 offer a degree in neuroscience, according to Theibert.
Substantial neuroscience research is conducted within the medical school basic science and clinical departments, including neurobiology, physiology and biophysics, cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, neurology, psychiatry and behavioral neurobiology, pathology and others. These departments and their faculty typically are far removed from undergraduate programs and students who must wait until they enter graduate school to study neuroscience and benefit from mentorship by the faculty.
UAB’s program will provide national caliber research experiences with faculty in the schools of Medicine, Optometry and Social & Behavioral Sciences and a top-notch didactic curriculum. Students will complete classes in the School of Medicine, and they will spend their final two years in neuroscience laboratories conducting individual research under the guidance of a mentor.
“This is an honors major with one-to-one laboratory experiences,” McFarland says. “Our students are going to spend at least two years working in labs with some of the best scientists in the country. They’re going to graduate with publications. They’re going to be doing something nobody else in Alabama has ever done.”
Hot area of science
The Comprehensive Neuroscience Center, directed by David Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., supported Sweatt, McFarland and Theibert.
“This major is greater than any one department,” Standaert says. “This is reaching out and changing the university by opening the door to an undergraduate major that we hope will produce students who will enter our graduate programs, and we hope it will become a magnet to draw the best and brightest. That’s the kind of systemic change you like to see to really make a difference.”
Theibert, director of the program, authored the program proposal — a document that required months of planning supported by extensive discussion with UAB faculty and administration, plus research into neuroscience programs at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Theibert says UAB is launching this degree program at the right time.
“Neuroscience is a hot area of science and scientific research,” Theibert says. “A large amount of NIH and foundation funding is being invested in research in neurodevelopmental, cognitive, neurological and psychiatric disorders. We expect this trend to continue for decades.”
One of the highlights of the program is mentoring. Students will be matched one-to-one with an honors research advisor who guides their development in the research program and helps with the honors thesis that describes the outcome of their research. Students also will be required to make a public presentation of their research during their senior year.
Theibert says students who graduate from the program will have broad post-graduate opportunities.
“If students want to go to graduate school and do biomedical research or pursue public health in the future, they will already have completed a very rigorous senior-year curriculum and an in-depth research project; they’ll be really well prepared,” Theibert says, “If students want to go to medical, dental or optometry school, they will have an outstanding academic and research foundation that will make them highly competitive for entrance into these schools. The program will provide tremendous opportunities for our students.”
Visit www.unp.uab.edu to learn more about the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program.