Breadth, depth and research time: Finding the right balance in a multidisciplinary field

Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh

Many of the discussions facilitated by our participation in the CID project have focused on the question of how to ideally balance breadth vs. depth of knowledge, while at the same time leaving ample time for research. This problem is not unique to neuroscience; however, it is exacerbated by the inherent multidisciplinary nature of the field. Within the training program of the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh (CNUP) we set out to allow trainees to both develop a general competence in neuroscience as well as a specific expertise in one or more sub-areas. In addition, trainees need to develop a general professional competence in oral and written expression, in the critical analysis of primary scientific articles, and in teaching. We also add laboratory research as a third, and possibly dominant, variable to this balancing act because we believe it is vital to have trainees develop the necessary tools for successful research; designing, conducting, and evaluating their own research, as well as that of other investigators.

Below we provide the rationale behind many of our program's attempts to address these issues as well as some ongoing efforts to improve current, or develop new, components of our graduate program. Many of these efforts have been initiated or augmented based on our participation in the CID.

From Mathematician, Biologist, or Computer Scientist to Neuroscientist

Students beginning predoctoral training within the CNUP arrive with diverse backgrounds and diverse interests. However, developing a strong base covering fundamental material in the areas that help define neuroscience is crucial for success within a field that often demands multidisciplinary and collaborative research. Although defining the knowledge that comprises the "core" of neuroscience presents its own challenges, the CNUP attempts to provide all of its students with a core base of knowledge during their first year of graduate school with a set of two core courses: Cellular & Molecular Biology and Systems Neuroscience. The content of these courses is re-evaluated and updated each year based both on faculty and student input.

In addition, the CNUP journal club exposes students to primary research articles from many of the diverse fields that fall under the umbrella of neuroscience. The journal club provides exposure to the wide range of techniques used to study brain funciton, while at the same time honing trainee's skills in critically reading and evaluating primary literature. While this format certainly benefits more junior students, recent concerns questioning the utility of this journal club for senior students prompted a revision of the guidlines for journal club. This process is described in detail within the "Ongoing Efforts" section.

We also believe every neuroscientist should be equipped with several other general tools including:

1. A basic understanding of statistics, hence we require a graduate level statistics course.

2. An understanding of the ethical issues that face all scientists, hence we require a graduate level scientific ethics course.

3. An understanding of the tools needed for professional development. There are several opportunities within our program that foster professional development including Survival Skills and Ethics Programs as well as yearly departmental and center-wide retreats.

Ongoing Efforts

Renovation of the CNUP Journal Club
Powerpoint slide presentation from the '04 winter neuroscience convening.

Not Sacrificing Depth for Breadth

One of the main objectives of the CNUP predoctoral training program is to allow students to develop a specific expertise in one or more selected areas of neuroscience. Many aspects of our program are desigend to meet this objective. Elective courses, including the opportunity for students to create their own tutorials, are available within various sub-areas. In addition, students are encouraged to attend one of the many speciality journal clubs, which focus on a specific area of research interest, that are available within the CNUP community.

However, the main source of expertise within a specific area of interest will come from the student's mentor. From the onset of the CID project, we have been interested in developing mechainsms to ensure quality mentoring throughout the CNUP. Under the "Ongoing Efforts" section we describe further the steps currently underway to evaluate and improve faculty mentoring.

Focusing on Primary Research

Through our discussions with other CID participating departments we have found that programs place various levels of emphasis on primary research during the first few years of training. Within the CNUP research experience is emphasized from the onset of graduate training. The program has been designed to place research experience at the core of graduate training right from day one.

We believe that breadth of knowledge does not end in the classroom. It is also important that trainees are exposed to a variety of laboratory techniques as well as various perspectives on neuroscience research and approaches to designing specific projects. Semester long research rotations provide trainees the opportunity to work within the laboratory of several members of the CNUP faculty before selecting a laboratory for dissertation research. While rotations are not required, students must experience a different lab setting at some point during their training. This requirement can be fulfilled through a 3 month research apprenticeship performed in a laboratory of a faculty member other than his/her major research advisor.

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