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UW-Eau Claire to offer degree in neuroscience beginning in the fall

| Judy Berthiaume

Current or future University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students with an interest in studying the brain and nervous system will have a new academic program available to them beginning in the fall.

During its February meeting, the UW System Board of Regents approved the addition of a neuroscience major at UW-Eau Claire.

Neuroscience majors study the basic science of how the brain and nervous system work, as well as applied sciences that focus on things like behavior or communication.

Based in the department of psychology, UW-Eau Claire’s 60-credit neuroscience major will include courses in the departments of psychology, biology, music, philosophy, mathematics, and communication sciences and disorders.

“This is a very unusual major in the sense that it involves courses in six departments in two different colleges,” said Dr. Doug Matthews, professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at UW-Eau Claire. “It’s truly interdisciplinary, which will prepare our students to be successful in a number of high-demand fields.”

Students who pursue bachelor’s degrees in neuroscience often aspire to work within academia, pursue medical-related careers, or work in growing fields such as pharmaceutical or medical equipment sales.

Experts predict that the demand for neuroscience graduates will increase by 22 percent by 2022, meaning Blugolds studying neuroscience will find plenty of opportunities in the workforce or to continue their education in graduate or medical schools, Matthews said.

Many UW-Eau Claire students are excited about the new major, Matthews said.

“Interest among our current and future students is phenomenal,” Matthews said, noting that he expects more than 100 Blugolds to declare neuroscience as their major within three years. “I would be stunned if there aren’t at least 30 majors immediately now that it’s been approved. A number of our students have been waiting for it to be offered.”

Already, he said, about 50 UW-Eau Claire students are pursuing neuroscience minors, a program option the university added just two years ago.

“Our ‘Intro to Neuroscience’ class is always at maximum enrollment and it’s not a requirement for any existing major,” Matthews said. “It’s just a topic area many of our students are really interested in.”

The student interest in the new major is encouraging because the demand for this kind of expertise will continue to grow, said Dr. Jerry Hoepner, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders. With people living longer, they must manage the disorders of aging for longer periods, he said.

As more is know about the best rehabilitative techniques for stroke, brain injury and other neurogenic diseases that cross boundaries of multiple disciplines, there is an increased need for professionals who are educated across disciplines and know how to work collaboratively, Hoepner said.

“There is a need for faculty and researchers who can walk both sides of the aisle, between basic neuroscience and everyday clinical practice,” Hoepner said. “We have these amazing advances but what the average neuroscientist says doesn’t necessarily transfer well into language that everyday clinicians can follow.

“Many agree that the only way to bridge that gap is by training professionals in both realms – basic science and clinical — to understand a bit about the other context, so that information can be shared with more common language. The more we can bridge the gap, the further we progress and the faster implementation of new technologies or interventions occurs.”

While the neuroscience degree is new, UW-Eau Claire already offers all the classes that students will take to complete the degree, Matthews said.

“It’s a unique major, but all the courses already exist,” Matthews said. “We have the traditional kinds of classes you would expect in the major, but we also have electives in disciplines that relate to neuroscience but aren’t part of other universities’ programs. For example, our major includes courses in philosophy and in music.”

The faculty who will teach in the new major are biologists, psychologists, mathematicians, musicians, philosophers and speech pathologists, all of whom share an interest in how the brain and nervous system works, Matthews said.

“A lot of different faculty who are strong in certain areas are reaching out to each other and getting out of our silos,” Matthews said. “That’s a win for our students because they will know a lot about a lot of areas, which really is what a liberal-arts-based education is all about.”

UW-Eau Claire’s neuroscience major also is distinctive in that it requires four mathematics classes in statistics, Matthews said.

While the advanced study of statistics will be challenging, UW-Eau Claire students completing the mathematics sequence will gain a valuable skill set that will open up even more career opportunities, Matthews said.

“For example, if you’re interested in working in genetics, doing gene mapping or related work, you need to be strong in statistics,” Matthews said. “Students earning a UW-Eau Claire neuroscience bachelor’s degree will be more prepared in statistics than many Ph.D-prepared neuroscientists.”

UW-Eau Claire also already has in place strong research and internship programs so there will be plenty of hands-on learning opportunities for neuroscience majors, he said.

“We will get students actively engaged in doing neuroscience research,” Matthews said. “Learning by doing will be a big emphasis of this program.”

In addition, UW-Eau Claire’s recently announced collaboration with Mayo Clinic will create even more opportunities for research, internships and networking.

The cross-disciplinary approach to the major also will help graduates be more successful in their future careers, Hoepner said.

“Often, students graduate and become professionals in whatever discipline, only to find that they have a number of interdisciplinary relationships to build,” Hoepner said. “They may work among colleagues of other disciplines but may be functioning in parallel, rather than collaboratively. If they don’t have support to learn how to best collaborate or have colleagues that value such collaborations, they may fall short of working together efficiently and productively.”

All of these things will position UW-Eau Claire neuroscience majors for lifelong success in a field that is changing rapidly, Matthews said.

“It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come since the 1990s, and it’s impossible to guess what will happen in the next 20 years in the neuroscience fields,” Matthews said. “However, given the way we’ve structured our major, Blugolds will be well-prepared for whatever comes next in the field. It’s an exciting time for our students and future grads.”

Photo caption: Dr. Doug Matthews, chair of the psychology department, teaches a psychopharmacology course. The university’s new neuroscience major will be based in the psychology department.