Another Day, Another Neuron
So what does it take to study that 1.3 kg (3 lb.) mass of tissue in our heads we call the brain? What does a neuroscientist actually do? Can the part of our anatomy that makes us who we are really be studied?
When you ask a child, "What do you want to be when you grow up", many will answer, "I want to be a Teacher" or "I want to be a Fireman" or "I want to be a Pilot" - I doubt any will say "I want to be a Neuroscientist". Yet many people do pursue careers studying the nervous system. In fact, the Society for Neuroscience, an international organization of scientists who study the nervous system, has over 25,000 members!
To start of the road to become a neuroscientist - any scientist for that matter - first and most importantly, you must get an education. Study hard in school and go to college. Once in college, you do not need to take neuroscience classes immediately. Shop around - take classes in a variety of departments and follow your interests. Neuroscientists come from many different disciplines including psychology, zoology, physics, anthropology, biology, chemistry, physiology, and philosophy. A diverse educational background will provide the most important skill of all: how to ask questions. As an undergraduate, you may have a chance to test the waters of research by working in a neuroscience lab. Ask around - neuroscientists are always looking for cheap labor. You could even make a little money. As a volunteer research subject, you could also make a little money. Just strap on the electrodes and ...Don't worry - all experiments, even those on students, MUST be approved by a university human subjects committee to determine that they are safe.
After finishing at the university with your Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree, you are now ready for the next step - graduate school or medical school or dental school. Some people go to graduate school for their Ph.D. and a health profession school like medical, dental or nursing school. Your have a wide range of choices for which department to choose. Many universities have separate neuroscience departments, but psychology, physiology, pharmacology, and biology department also offer course work and laboratories that study the nervous system. Do you want to study how drugs affect the brain? Why do we sleep? What causes and what are the treatments for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, schizophrenia? What about pain, memory, stress, emotion, consciousness? The list is endless. It is important that you pick a graduate program with people who are doing what you want to do. Nevertheless, it is common for students who are pursuing one area of neuroscience to become interested in another area and switch labs. As long as you use some tact and common courtesies with your advisor, changing labs should not be a problem.
Many graduate schools will assist you financially with stipends in the form of research and teaching assistantships. Research assistants typically perform experiments in a laboratory under the guidance of a senior researchers. Teaching assistants help in structors with classroom duties such as grading papers, leading discussion sections and even lecturing students. These are not high paying positions, but they are wonderful training ground for the future.
So you have your Ph.D.and/or M.D. and D.D.S.? Now what? Many people further their training with a "postdoctoral" fellowship. A "post-doc" goes to a laboratory where he or she can learn new techniques or explore a new area of neuroscience. Your time as a post-doc is free from the worries of grant writing and teaching...you are in the lab to do research. After your post-doctoral fellowship, it is time to get a "real job". Here are just some places that offer employment for neuroscientists:
- Government (for example, in laboratories at the National Institutes of Health) - These positions usually do not involve traditional teaching responsibilities.
- University (as a researcher or teacher) - At the university it is sometimes difficult to balance research and teaching duties. However, the university environment, surrounded by students interested in learning, is exciting.
- Industry (for example in biotechnology, pharmaceutical or medical instruments companies, including Genentech, Inc.) - Often paying higher salaries than government or university jobs, private industry offers the chance to research and develop new products for the marketplace without the pressure of teaching responsibilities.
- Hospital or Medical Center (as a clinician and/or researcher) - Working in a medical center is an ideal place to study neurological disorders in patients.
While employment opportunities in some major cities are sparse, there are jobs for neuroscientists - you just have to know where to look.
"Neuroscientist" is actually a general word that describes someone who studies the nervous system. Many neuroscientists "wear several hats". For example, a neurosurgeon may also have a Ph.D. in physiology. He or she may work in the operating room but also have time to perform experiments. There are many career paths that neuroscientists can take:
Neuroanatomist studies the structure (anatomy) of the nervous system Neurobiologist studies the biology of the nervous system Neurochemist studies the chemistry (for example, neurotransmitters) of the nervous system Neurological Surgeon a physician who performs surgery on the nervous system Neurologist a physician who diagnoses and treats disorders of the nervous system Neuropathologist studies diseases of the nervous system Neuropharmacologist studies the action of drugs on the nervous system and/or behavior Neuropsychologist studies brain-behavior relationships (especially cognitive functions) in humans Neurophysiologist studies the physiology of the nervous system.
Physiological Psychologist (also known as a Psychobiologist or Biological Psychologist)
studies the neural basis of behavior
Psychiatrist a physician who diagnoses and treats mental disorders Psychophysicist studies the relationships between environmental stimuli
(for example, light, sound, or heat) and the
resulting sensations and perceptions that they produce
A Day in the Life of a Neuroscientist You have finished your training, you have a nice job. What does a neuroscientist really do? Like most professions, the job of a neuroscientist requires a multitude of talents. In addition to performing experiments in their area of expertise, neuroscientists must be:
Neuroscientists in charge of their own labs are also head custodian and chief bottle washers.
- writers (to publish manuscripts and write grant applications)
- accountants (to balance laboratory expenses)
- fund raisers (to support the laboratory financially)
- electricians, carpenters and plumbers (to repair minor problems with equipment or build new instruments)
- teachers (to lecture large audiences and classes or talk one-on-one with students)
- travel agents (to get to meetings around the country and world)
- artists (to create graphics and illustrations of results from experiments)
- photographers (to document your work and prepare manuscripts)
- counselors (to advise students)
- editors (to critique their own work and that of others)
Challenges for the Future
Because of many technological advances, neuroscience has made great strides in recent years. There is the patch clamp to listen to ion channels; the electron microscope to see inside neurons; single unit techniques to record electrical activity from inside and outside of individual neurons; positron emission tomography to study brain function; magnetic resonance imaging to see inside the living brain. Yet even with all these inventions, there is still so much to learn about the brain and the rest of the nervous system. The next century holds many exciting challenges for current and future neuroscientists. Here are only a few of the possible questions that face neuroscientists in laboratories and clinics around the world:
(Image courtesy of Dr. Robert C. Coghill )
Neuroscientists are studying these and many other questions about the brain right now. With increased effort, the answers to these questions are in the near future. Perhaps you would like to help?
Interested in learning more?
You can talk to Dr. Chudler in the "Teacher's Lounge"