Whitman Develops New Neuroscience Major: Brain, Behavior & Cognition
By Mónica Hernández
Beginning with the 2023–2024 academic year, Whitman College will offer a multidisciplinary major for students wanting to study the intricacy of neural science. Whitman faculty announced a new major: Brain, Behavior and Cognition (BB&C), which integrates courses in Biology and Psychology, for a new focus in neuroscience.
Students majoring in BB&C will explore the workings of the nervous system, in both human and animal models, to learn how differences in nervous systems contribute to the rich diversity of animal behavior and make connections between the science of the mind and the science of the brain. The new major will draw from multiple disciplines including biology, psychology and chemistry among other related foundational areas.
“Bridging these departments will give students an opportunity to study each discipline as they work together in the brain rather than having to study both separately,” says Nancy Day, Assistant Professor of Psychology. “Having a major that combines both Biology and Psychology is a major I wish I had when I went to school at Whitman. Especially now that we have five faculty members with doctorate degrees in the neuroscience realm.”
Faculty members in the Biology and Psychology departments have been working since 2010 to create a more robust option that works well for students interested in neuroscience and highlights faculty expertise. They evaluated building a concentration or a minor before they developed a major that offers students a well-rounded education, spanning many disciplines taught at Whitman.
After Day joined Whitman in 2019, she worked closely with Ginger Withers, the Dr. Robert F. Welty Professor of Biology to craft the major. Day is a 2005 Whitman graduate with a double major in Psychology and Biology and a former student of Withers. Other faculty who helped build the major include Matthew Prull and Walter Herbranson, Professors of Psychology, and Christopher Wallace, Professor of Biology.
“BB&C will allow Whitman students to dive deeper into their interests under this umbrella of a major. They can still choose their own path within it—if someone is more interested in the molecular biology components then they can take more biology classes than someone who is more interested in cognition, for example,” says Day.
“Students can take a relevant class in economics, rhetoric or philosophy. There are a lot of classes across our campus that fit into the new major,” says Withers. After Whitman, students can go in many different career paths because the major has a strong and practical anchor in the sciences, she says. Graduates might choose to go on to medical school and other health professions, graduate research opportunities, counseling programs or into community-based careers.
To build community within the major, students will be encouraged to participate in the senior seminar course early—even as early as their first year—and then again in their senior year, when they will share their thesis research.
“The senior seminar course—we hope—becomes a journal club where we bring in speakers, read articles and push younger students to start thinking about and getting exposure to various thesis projects early,” says Day. “They can also take it for credit but won’t be required to take it until their senior year. It will allow all students the opportunity to collaborate with each other throughout their entire time at Whitman.”
For Withers, this community learning is something she’s particularly looking forward to facilitating. “I’m really excited about the senior seminar experience and how it will give us a chance to really focus on brain science.”
In addition to their rigorous coursework, students will conduct and analyze research and write a senior thesis based on the results—a significant accomplishment that few undergraduates at other colleges complete. Students are encouraged to study abroad to find opportunities in research labs across the world. For those wanting to stay closer to home, Whitman provides ample opportunity for students to assist professors with their own research and coauthor their findings in publications, as faculty in both Biology and Psychology have active research labs. Students in Day’s lab are investigating the neural basis of song learning in zebra finches, and students in Prull’s lab are examining how distractions impact memory. Research in Biology labs focus on mechanisms of neural development, how experience influences brain structure, as well as effects of stress and concussion on brain function.
“It is a hugely transformative experience for students to have a chance to work in a research lab and see how people design experiments, to learn new methods and do things with their own hands,” says Withers. “It makes them scientists.”
Students will also get to experience publicly presenting their findings at the Whitman Undergraduate Conference—a unique college-wide presentation of scholarship, critical thinking, self-driven exploration, and creativity. Student researchers may also go on to present at regional and national conferences. These kinds of achievements demonstrate academic success, are useful for graduate school applications and showcase ability as students enter the professional world upon graduation.
“I’m excited to see how students choose to build their classes into the major, especially the elective choices, and how they incorporate them into their specific interests,” says Withers.
More New Fields of Study
Along with the Brain, Behavior & Cognition major, these new opportunities for students were also approved in 2022:
Ethics & Society. Students are keenly interested in questions of how to act and interact with the people and world around them. Students who pursue this new major will explore philosophy through the lens of ethical and social issues, such as climate change ethics, criminal justice and punishment, biomedical ethics, animal rights, and racial and gender justice.
French+. This integrated program allows students to pair another major with French. Along with psychology, religion and sociology, two new options for these double majors were added in 2022: biology and geology.
Human-Centered Design. A new concentration in the study of Human-Centered Design (HCD), which can be paired with any other major at Whitman, encourages students to sturdy the deeper meaning of objects, spaces, systems and beyond.