Interdisciplinary science training

Interdisciplinary science training McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 22, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 09
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 36: 2003-2004 > January 22, 2004 > Interdisciplinary science training

Interdisciplinary science training

With the assistance of a prestigious six-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, McGill's Department of Psychology is committed to establishing a completely new paradigm to train Canada's future scientists.

An allocation of $250,000 for six consecutive years will be used to launch and develop the McGill Behavioural Neuroscience Training Program (BNTP). As program director Avi Chaudhuri explains, "Our goal is to prepare young scientists who have acquired excellent research skills in multiple areas, who will be competitive in emerging global sectors of academic, industrial and health research."

Graduate and Post-Doctoral Studies Dean Martha Crago says that the proposals for this CIHR funding were some of the most exciting she'd seen. The BNTP is particularly interesting because "the grant is centered in one department, but provides students with a wonderful chance to work with researchers approaching behavioural neuroscience from a variety of perspectives."

Starting this fall, the BNTP will accept 10 to 12 top-ranked incoming graduate students, presenting them unique opportunities. "Currently, incoming students are assigned to a particular scientist's lab. The grant will now enable students to rotate within two or three labs the first year (learning, memory, vision, music perception, etc.). This will allow students to determine in which environment they will flourish scientifically," Chaudhuri says.

Crago also lauds the Career Practicum. Chaudhuri says that, "Up to now, students have graduated with a great deal of training and focus, but with little knowledge of the practical aspects of becoming a scientist." He adds, "our students will now learn how to deal with ethical issues, lab management concerns and human interactions. They will also be taught how to apply for appropriate grants, how to get papers published and how to engage in the process of securing a tenure-track job."

To maintain a leading edge in a competitive grad school recruiting environment, the team has created a Discover McGill program. Aimed at undergraduates from outside of Quebec, students entering their fourth year are invited to apply to the BNTP summer program. "Ten to 15 students will each receive a $5,600 stipend and an opportunity to work in a lab," Chaudhuri says. "Hopefully, they will also fall in love with Montreal and McGill."

The field of behavioural neuroscience covers the broad area of scholarly activity on the relationship between brain function and behaviour. Chaudhuri talks of McGill's early work in the field, when Donald Hebb, chair of the Psychology Department from 1948 to 1958, put forth the notion that "there was a strengthening of synaptic structures through repeated firing of neurons, forming the basis of patterned learning as well as memory." Hebb's ideas led to a profound understanding of the neurological processes that underlie learning, motivation and behaviour and became known the world over as "Hebbian Learning."

According to Chaudhuri, we are living through a molecular revolution. "There has been an explosion of developments in different areas of neuroscience over the past decade, particularly with respect to DNA technology, molecular cloning and mutagenesis. Even though this took place in the molecular domain, they are now having a huge impact on psychology and the study of behaviour." Scientists seeking to comprehend the underlying processes of behaviour are elated. "As this field matures and the technology becomes more robust, it will be applied to complex mental processes such as learning, memory and decision making, as well as cognitive, sensory and perceptual functions."

Technology for imaging brain function has also developed dramatically over the past five years. "We've known for a long time that the brain is an organ with localized function. For example, a gunshot wound to the brain will result in the loss to a particular part of the brain, which in turn has a certain impact on behaviour. However, gunshot wounds are not a very good model for a systematic study of brain function," Chaudhuri says. Relatively new technologies such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) have made it much easier to figure out localized brain activity. "This is a science that is only going to get more exciting in years to come."

The highly focused manner of training that has been practiced over the last 50 years no longer meets the demands of this evolving field. "The next generation of developments will come from the ability to assemble knowledge from a diverse landscape of disciplines. Successful neuroscientists will now have to start thinking about what is happening at the neural and cellular levels and then associate that with what is happening at the circuitry level," says Chaudhuri.

More information about the McGill Behavioural Neuroscience Training Program as well as Discover McGill can be found at www.mbns.ca.

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