College Introduces New Neuroscience Tracks

Science Feature

In an unprecedented interdisciplinary initiative, four new undergraduate concentration tracks--the first of their kind--have already attracted over 100 Harvard undergraduates, who will study topics ranging from neural networks to addiction to primate social psychology.

Beginning this year, concentrators in psychology, computer science, history and science and biology can choose to pursue a specialized mind/brain/behavior (MBB) track within their respective concentrations, the culmination of a unique three-year initiative of President Neil L. Rudenstine to improve interdisciplinary study at the College.

Initial student reaction to the new program has been positive.

"Neuroscience and issues of the mind are such exciting fields right now," says Amy E. Herman '97, biology concentrator and co-chair of the Undergraduate Society for Neuroscience. "It's really great to get undergraduates interested in all the varying ideas coming forth right now."

According to Shawn Harriman, undergraduate program coordinator of the MBB initiative, about 100 students, mostly psychology concentrators, have already contacted him regarding the new program. And even more students are believed to be contracting administrators in other departments.


A handbook describing the new tracks sets forth the goals of the MBB initiative: "By bringing together diverse representatives from Harvard's different schools and disciplines, MBB hopes to provide an alternative to the self-reinforcing isolation of scholarship, which has been particularly severe between the natural sciences and the humanities."

The new tracks allow students to integrate MBB courses--ranging from the molecular biology of the brain to the evolution of the mind--into their basic concentration course-work.

High student interest and the faculty's commitment to interdisciplinary study motivated the formation of the new tracks, according to Associate Professor of Psychiatry Steven E. Hyman, who is director of the MBB initiative.

Subsequently, MBB enables psychology students to pursue a joint psychology and biology concentration in cognitive neuroscience. The MBB program also offers a computational neuroscience track in computer science; a mind, brain and behavioral sciences track in history and science; and a neurobiology track in biology.

Though the tracks differ with concentration, all of them require three foundation courses: Science B-29, "Human Behavioral Biology," commonly known among students as "Sex;" Biological Sciences 25, "Behavioral Neuroscience"; and an interdisciplinary seminar of the student's choosing.

Seniors must also write an MBB/neuroscience-related thesis and take a non-credit interdisciplinary research workshop designed to foster communication between MBB students in different departments (please see graphic).

Beyond these requirements, concentrations diverge as to the coursework needed to fulfill the MBB tracks. Students who complete the requirements will be awarded a Certificate in MBB/Neuroscience in addition to their A.B. degree.

Although no special mention of MBB will be made on transcripts, students can certainly indicate their completion of the program when applying for graduate school or employment, according to Harriman, the undergraduate program coordinator.

The History of MBB

The MBB initiative arose from President Rudenstine's drive to increase interdisciplinary study at Harvard. As part of the initiative, working groups were formed, drawing faculty members from nine of the University's 10 schools.

"Our initiative is uniquely broad," wrote Hyman in an e-mail message. "We have active participation from the Divinity School, the humanities within [the Faculty of Arts and Sciences], and the Business School, for example. That breadth is both our strength and our challenge."