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Proposed Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience expected to attract big interest from undergrads

vtech-logoVirginia Tech’s proposed School of Neuroscience promises to be a unique program in the nation, one that will study not only disorders of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury, but also the mind itself, including decision-making, behavior, and creativity.

The proposed school, to be housed in the College of Science and headed by neuroscientist Harald Sontheimer, was approved Mondayby the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. It will now go to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, which is expected to consider the school’s approval during the first quarter of 2016.

The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia approved neuroscience as an undergraduate degree program in 2014, where it was based in the college’s Academy of Integrated Science. An estimated 200 undergraduates already have declared neuroscience as their major since it became available as an option at the start of the current academic year. The goal for the fall 2016 recruiting class is 100 students.

“This is a step in Virginia Tech’s development into a 21st century land grant university,” Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands said. “Every discipline grounded in human decision-making and human interaction will be transformed by our rapidly expanding understanding of how the brain works. Students across the disciplines who participate in our neuroscience curriculum will be in positions to lead in their chosen fields.”

Sontheimer said the neuroscience degree is, in many regards, the new English major – a program that will provide students with a strong foundation for a range of careers. Neuroscience majors can choose from three tracks: premedical, prescientific, and pre-professional, tailoring classes to suit their area of study.

“Neuroscience is arguably one of the most popular majors, already,” said Sontheimer. “Are you undecided? Get a neuroscience degree. You’ll become a fact-based individual who looks at data before introducing policy or curating an exhibit or treating a patient.”

The proposed school – which is expected to have educational and administrative space at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg and laboratory facilities at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke – will take a unique approach to neuroscience. The curriculum will encompass much of the research already taking place at the institute, including addiction, autism spectrum disorders, brain tumors, cerebral palsy, depression, epilepsy, neuropsychiatric disorders, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and stroke. Beyond disorders of the brain, students and faculty alike will also explore how the mind works, including decision-making, the origins of biases, ethics, and creativity.

Classes are expected to span the entire university, touching on behavior economics, ethical decisions in business, consumer behavior, child development, what makes individuals spiritual or creative, and how neuroscience can be used in the courtroom.

Sontheimer believes an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach, coupled with scientific training, can lead to an entirely new type of student.

“Everything in neuroscience can be quantified and analyzed,” said Sontheimer. “Why can’t we apply that to other disciplines? We can – and we should – inspire people to think in data-driven ways.”

Gary Long, associate dean for curriculum and instruction in the College of Science, said the Board of Visitors’ Academic Affairs Committee members gave a standing ovation to Sontheimer after his presentation on the proposed school Monday.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that,” added Long.

“It’s a great day for Virginia Tech, it’s a great day for our students, and it’s a great day for neuroscience,” Sontheimer said of the Board of Visitors’ vote. “It’s the first school of neuroscience of its kind in the nation, and I think we’ll be watched by many of our competitors. I’m expecting there to be as many as a thousand students who will call it a destination area of study, who would not otherwise come to Virginia Tech.”

Lay Nam Chang, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Science, said interest in the school has increased since the fall of 2014, when it was initially proposed in public, following the launch of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in 2010. A neuroscience major was considered as early as 2003, the year the College of Science was formed.

“Our college was established with the idea to explore ways in which science could be brought forward,” said Chang. “Neuroscience is a critical area of study, and we’re receiving applications with only neuroscience checked out of all of the majors at Virginia Tech.”

Sontheimer, holder of the I.D. Wilson Chair in the College of Science, previously held the positon of professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he headed two research centers, the Center for Glial Biology in Medicine and the Civitan International Research Center on Intellectual Disabilities.

He is considered a leading expert in glial biology and brain cancer, including glioblastoma.

In addition to his role at the College of Science, Sontheimer heads the newly established Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

“Dr. Sontheimer is a world-leading glial cell biologist, as well as an outstanding scientist and educator,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, who played an instrumental role in recruiting Sontheimer. “His reputation in research and leadership is internationally known and respected. He’s the perfect person to lead both the School of Neuroscience and the Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer.”

The School of Neuroscience will be headquartered in Sandy Hall, located just off Virginia Tech’s Drillfield. The building was originally constructed in 1924 and will be fully renovated to include administrative and student offices, meeting areas, interactive classrooms, an area for lectures and talks, and a café. Construction is expected to start in December 2015, with completion slated for mid-2017.



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