UChicago creates undergraduate major in neuroscience

Undergraduates drawn to developing artificial intelligence, finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease or understanding human memory will have a new academic path at the University of Chicago.

The Biological Sciences Division recently won approval for a new major in neuroscience, giving students in the College an opportunity to focus on the brain and nervous system. Neurobiology Professor Peggy Mason will serve as director of the major.

“Neuroscience is what makes us go. It drives all behavior. It can explain most of what goes on in my life from when I get up to when I go to sleep,” Mason said.

A factor in adding the major was demand for a neuroscience offering among students already in the College as well as prospective students. In recent days Mason has heard via social media from members of the Class of 2020 who are excited about the new offering.

John W. Boyer, dean of the College, said the interdisciplinary nature of the neuroscience major should attract students with diverse interests.

“Beginning with the Core curriculum, students in the College approach ideas about behavior and personhood from many perspectives, and the neuroscience major will be a perfect addition to their choices for specialized study,” Boyer said. “I am delighted that our students and faculty members have driven this idea from proposal to realization. I look forward to seeing the fruits of this addition through the discussions and studies that will take shape in the coming years.”

Mason said students often are drawn to neuroscience at a young age and for a wide range of reasons—from a fascination with the brain to a desire to understand human behavior. The major will follow in the College’s tradition of interdisciplinary studies, connecting biology with fields as varied as psychology, economics and linguistics.

“I want to make it a very happening, vibrant major,” Mason said.

Until now, neuroscience has been one of several specializations within the biological sciences. Discussions about adding neuroscience have been underway for years. The idea gained renewed traction with the arrival of Prof. John Maunsell, director of the Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior, and Ruth Anne Eatock, a professor of neurobiology.

Students also joined the effort. Third-year Wendy Tong remembers that when she first arrived on campus, she asked Mason often about when the College would add the major. She became fascinated with the subject after taking an elective at her high school in Texas.

“I have always been very interested in the brain and behavior,” said Tong, a psychology major with a minor in computational neuroscience. “I want to understand humans on multiple levels.”

The new major will be open to incoming students and some current first- and second-year students depending on their course of study to date. “I am excited that they will have the opportunity,” said Tong, who was one of several students involved in the push for the new major.

Mason estimates 25 to 50 students could declare neuroscience as their major in the first year. But the work already is paying off. On a recent morning, the professor was talking about the major with a colleague at a campus coffee shop. An eager student who overheard the conversation came over to confirm the news with them, saying, “Be still my beating heart.”