UW-Eau Claire's new neuroscience major already attracting students

| Judy Berthiaume

Sometimes timing really is everything.

Just ask Abbey Kastner and Amelia Schneider, UW-Eau Claire students who are among the first Blugolds to declare neuroscience as their major.

Both Kastner and Schneider came to UW-Eau Claire last year with an interest in the sciences and the health care field, as well as a curiosity about psychology.

Schneider only had a vague sense of what the neuroscience field involves, and never thought of it as a potential career path.

Kastner, however, already had neuroscience on her radar. A biology major, she planned to attend medical school to study neurology.

A year later, both Blugolds are rethinking their future goals thanks to UW-Eau Claire’s newest academic program and the new opportunities it offers students.

“In high school, I was always interested in the ‘how’ aspects of biology and psychology, specifically when I was learning about cognitive functions within the brain,” says Kastner, a sophomore from Hartford. “I had no idea that the area of biology I truly enjoyed was neuroscience until psychology professor Dr. Doug Matthews accepted me into his lab the fall of my freshman year.”

Schneider was a nursing major when she discovered a passion for psychology and began rethinking her future career track.

“With most of my electives done before I came to college, I got to jump into mostly pre-health professional classes,” says Schneider, a sophomore from Woodbury, Minnesota. “I quickly learned that nursing wasn't what I was meant to do. I fell in love with psychology. I changed my major to psychology and my minor to neuroscience during my second semester at UWEC.”

Within weeks of the UW System Board of Regents approving a neuroscience major at UW-Eau Claire in February, both Kastner and Schneider declared it as their major.

Students who major in neuroscience 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.

While the neuroscience major is new, UW-Eau Claire already offers all the classes that the major requires.

“My tentative plan always was to pursue neuroscience, so I have been taking psychology and neuroscience classes since my freshman year,” says Schneider. “Even though I wasn't a neuroscience major, I was preparing for it long before I had declared it. I am excited to finish college with neuroscience as my major and still graduate in four years.”

Kastner and Schneider, who both work in Matthews’ research lab studying the addictive effects of alcohol, say hands-on research, challenging classes and the other high-impact opportunities UW-Eau Claire offers have prepared them well for the rigors of the new neuroscience program.

“The biology department helped me build a foundation of knowledge in neuroscience, which made my major switch a very easy decision,” Kastner says. “I am well prepared for the expectations that come with rigorous classes and course material.”

Working as a researcher in Matthews’ lab helped her grow as a student and a scientist, Kastner says, noting that it also gave her the skills and experiences she needed to be able to engage in research in labs outside of UW-Eau Claire.

The university’s already strong research and internship programs, as well as its collaborative research agreement with Mayo Clinic Health System, will support faculty as they work to get neuroscience majors actively engaged in research, Matthews says, noting that hands-on experiences will be an important part of the neuroscience program.

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.

The faculty who 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 work, Matthews said.

“This major isn't for the faint of heart,” Schneider says. “It will take a lot of energy and work from anyone thinking of pursuing it.”

However, it will be worth the effort because the program will set her apart as she applies to graduate schools, Schneider says.

“The biology, math, and possible psychology and chemistry sequencing, as well as all of the other interesting electives, will give me skills as an undergraduate student that most people do not learn until graduate school,” Schneider says. “For example, we will learn nonparametric statistics, which is typically a first- or second-year graduate course.”

Neuroscience majors 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 be in high demand.

That is welcome news for Kastner, who now is considering a career that relates to genetics and psychopharmacology. 

“One of my interests is how genetic and environmental factors affect the brain throughout alcohol addiction,” says Kastner, who plans to study neuropharmacology in graduate school. “I'm also interested in how neurodegenerative disorders, such as Huntington's and Parkinson's, are impacted by different levels of neurotransmitters.

“In short, I want to focus on how chemical levels within the brain are responsible for the disorders and diseases many people suffer from today.”

Her dream, Kastner says, is to own a lab in pharmaceuticals that looks directly at how different drugs can be manufactured to specialize treatment for individuals.

“I have a year before I start applying to graduate schools so I'm still deciding if I want to continue alcohol addiction research or begin on a different path pertaining to neurodegenerative diseases,” Kastner says. “Neuroscience plays a massive role in both.”

Schneider plans to study experimental neuroscience in a graduate program.

After earning a Ph.D., she hopes to work either as a professor — teaching and doing research — or as a researcher for a government or health agency.

While UW-Eau Claire’s neuroscience major is new, students already are excited about it, Matthews says.

“Interest among our current and future students is phenomenal,” Matthews said. “A number of 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.

He expects more than 100 Blugolds to declare neuroscience as their major within three years.

“I was ecstatic to learn last year that there was a neuroscience minor at UW-Eau Claire,” Kastner says. “It’s amazing that now I can graduate with a major that perfectly aligns with my academic and career endeavors.

“It's hard to find something that you feel so passionate about at a young age; I am so grateful that I found it.”

Schneider agrees, though she has one more reason to be excited about her new major.

“It just sounds cool,” Schneider says. “Neuroscience major? I usually get a big ‘wow’ from people when I say that's my major.”

Photo caption: Abbey Kastner (left) and Amelia Schneider are among the first UW-Eau Claire students to declare neuroscience as their major. The Blugolds work in a psychology lab.