When I tell people that I study biology and neuroscience, I am frequently asked if I want to be a brain surgeon or something else involving treating people with brain disorders. While I do care about people being healthy, their treatment isn’t with what I want to mainly concern myself as a career: what interests me isn’t the “what” of disease but the “why.” I would much rather figure out the process behind how something happens than fix it with knowledge other people have discovered. There’s no doubt that application is important (and far less tedious than pure research, in some people’s eyes), but science is exciting to me because of that discovery.
What this capstone course emphasized was how understanding the neurochemical mechanisms involved in diseases and disorders can help us think about their possible treatments – something that benefits aspiring medical professionals and researchers alike. What’s more is that the discussion-based environment encouraged knowledge and perspectives to be exchanged amongst this group of critically thinking students with differing interests and insights, allowing everyone to benefit from the collective strengths of the group.
One of the most difficult aspects to this class was getting through the scientific literature. Since we read a new paper each week, we had to develop the skills to separate what we knew from what we needed to learn more about and make connections from our current knowledge bases in order for them to expand. We would pool together questions we had whose answers we thought would be especially important to our understanding of the paper, and each person would select one to share with the class. Many of the things we learned in the beginning were important for further papers, so as this general knowledge grew, we became more able to analyze the specific nuances to each one. Because of my interest and background in genetics, I found I was uniquely able to research and explain the genetic components of our weekly topic. The same was true for other students who, for example, had a better understanding of chemical structure or neuroanatomy than others. These different skills were needed for the inherent interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience and added to the capstone experience by drawing from various fields of study.
The final part of learning about a topic was its actual discussion, where we went beyond the scientific details and thought about what sort of implications our new knowledge on the week’s issue could have on how people live and how we view our world. This helped to identify how someone in a position to understand scientific topics has a role as an educator when hot topics such as obesity and Alzheimer’s are discussed in the general public. We needed to consider what people knew, what they should know, and what actions should be taken to ensure a better life for everyone. The personal conclusions we drew from these final discussions ended up in our blog posts, where we attempted to communicate our entire learning process with the community.
Problems do not exist in individual bubbles: more and more we are uncovering new ways by which all things are interconnected, signaling a greater need for information and interpretations of this information to be shared amongst seemingly distant groups of people. We need to get the input of others in fields different from ours to see how they view something, why that might be different from how we see it, and how we maybe need to adjust our approach to get a more favorable outcome. The organization of this course made it so that it could not be accomplished alone. Everyone’s insights and discoveries, however small, were needed for furthering the group’s understanding of the subject. It served as a reminder that while information and ideas are accessible to anyone, it is often the case that our peers can be our greatest teachers – and sometimes we take on the role of that teacher, if we are more qualified.
This class helped to solidify my desire to do research in that it allowed me to think by exploring questions that I personally had concerning seemingly tangential topics that also excite me – that is, it encouraged me to find the puzzle pieces I was good at and enjoyed finding in order to contribute to the whole, very complex picture. I believe that I have a renewed idea of how to approach what I do and how to use my ideas as well as a more defined way in which to be responsibly engaged throughout my life simply by doing what I love.