Google Science Fair deadline tomorrow!

“Google’s worldwide Science Fair competition …is calling for entries over the next few days. It gives kids the opportunity to join in a new kind of online science competition…offering them the chance to win … prizes including a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands or a $50,000 scholarship.”

They paid us to post this video of a Rube Goldberg machine (you don’t need sound, it’s just random music):

(you won’t be able to see it if you have AdBlock enabled)

Frontiers in Neuroscience Journal

The journal, Frontiers in Neuroscience, edited by Idan Segev, has made it Volume 3, issue 1.  Launching last year at the Society for Neuroscience conference, its probably the newest Neuroscience-related journal.

I’m a fan of it because it is an open-access journal featuring a “tiered system” and more.  From their website:

The Frontiers Journal Series is not just another journal. It is a new approach to scientific publishing. As service to scientists, it is driven by researchers for researchers but it also serves the interests of the general public. Frontiers disseminates research in a tiered system that begins with original articles submitted to Specialty Journals. It evaluates research truly democratically and objectively based on the reading activity of the scientific communities and the public. And it drives the most outstanding and relevant research up to the next tier journals, the Field Journals.

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How to prepare for a PhD in neuroscience

UPDATED 7/26/2009: Click more (or scroll to the end of the post) to see what the student ended up choosing as a major.

Yesterday, I received this email from a freshman preparing for a future in neuroscience:

Dear Neville

My name is […]. I’m a freshman in Biomedical Engineering at the [university in] Mexico City.

After graduation, I am very interested in pursuing the Brain and Cognitive Sciences graduate program. Given your experience, I would like to ask you for some advice.

Over the last few months, I have been thinking about pursuing a major in Electrical Engineering instead. My goal would be to have more engineering tools for my further studies in Neuroscience. Based on your courses, which focus do you think would be more useful to have as an undergraduate? Are there any courses which you would recommend I take to build a stronger background?

I greatly appreciate any guidance you could provide.

Although there are other places to find advice on preparing for a PhD (for instance, economist N. Greg Mankiw has a few advice posts including this one on preparatory math classes), I figured that my take might be unique enough to share it with others. Neuroscience, like other fields, is becoming ever more interdisciplinary and being “a biologist that studies the brain” is just not enough anymore.

Here’s what I wrote back:

I think you’re on a good path for applying to BCS. I think it’s better to major in EE or BE rather than neuroscience or psychology to prepare for a BCS PhD. It’s easy to pick up the neuroscience in graduate school and harder to develop basic hard science and quantitative skills later on. Between BE and EE, I think you will have to decide. Either one should potentially give you a good background. Think about which one is more exciting to you and which program has better instructors.

Here are key quantitative areas I’d recommend:

  • Linear algebra,
  • probability theory/stats,
  • differential equations,
  • signal processing (Fourier transform and linear systems analysis)

A good command of these topics will serve you well in graduate school and far beyond. These topics are probably more closely aligned with an EE background, but, again, I think BE could be a great major if you make sure to add these kinds of rigorous engineering/applied math courses. Additional helpful quantitative topics would be electricity and magnetism and basic stat mech. (The nervous system is, in part, electrical and neuroscience makes extensive use of diffusion equations.)

More broadly, a neuroscientist is a type of biologist. With the age of genetics and genomics upon us, I think it is great to know some biochemistry, genetics, and organic chemistry (roughly in that order of importance). And, after all of that, if your schedule allows, take some courses that are specific to neuroscience, ethology, or cognitive science. I found it very beneficial to take a medical school neuroanatomy course before graduate school, which was really my only neuroscience course pre-MIT. A first course that emphasizes such raw memorization will get you up to speed with the field and its specialized lingo quite well.

And, since you speak Spanish, I recommend this wonderful book by the most pre-eminent neuroscientist (Santiago Ramon y Cajal)… it’s full of great advice about doing science well: Los tónicos de la voluntad (Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica) (In English, there is a recent translation: Advice for a Young Investigator.)

Feel free to add your own sound advice in the comments below.
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Society for Neuroscience goes Wiki!

Looks like the Society for Neuroscience is stepping into the 21st century with a formal call to its 38,000 members to help make neuroscience articles on Wikipedia better.

From the Neuroscience Wikipedia initiative:

SfN is calling upon members to harness the power of Wikipedia and support the Society’s mission of promoting public education about neuroscience.

Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, has become one of the major sources of information used by the public.

SfN’s Public Education and Communication Committee (PECC) recently reviewed the main Wikipedia neuroscience overview section and entries on 10 major branches of neuroscience. Many of the entries were still under construction and incomplete.

SfN aims to improve and expand Wikipedia’s neuroscience content by encouraging members to edit and contribute.

Well done, SfN!

Aging faculty and the decline of liberalism in universities

On Campus, the 1960s Begin to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire –

Although the shift away from liberalism amongst faculty is interesting, this graphic caught my attention:

Should we take this to mean that there should be more faculty jobs as the avg age increases? (Or is this negated by the fact that people are living longer and working longer?)

YouTube for Biologists: Journal of Visualized Experiments

A friend recently alerted me to The Journal of Visualized Experiments, a revolutionary way to present science by showing the actual experimental procedures. Poking around the site I already picked up tips for my own research just by watching others perform procedures that I do myself in the lab (eg. use Sparkle glass cleaner not just for objectives but also for sample coverglass, how to properly interpret the OD ratio on the spectrophotometer for RNA purity, etc.)

Click more to see some of my favorite videos on the site.

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Find your favorite flora and fauna

The Encyclopedia of Life, No Bookshelf Required – New York Times

It sounds surreal, and yet scientists are writing the Book of All Species. Or to be more precise, they are building a Web site called the Encyclopedia of Life ( On Thursday its authors, an international team of scientists, will introduce the first 30,000 pages, and within a decade, they predict, they will have the other 1.77 million.

Definitely the most impressive thing here is the automated populating of the pages using existing databases. What a fantastic idea. Right now, it’s easy to find information for a few model organisms that have large scientific followings but this kind of wikipedia of all organisms is long overdue. Here’s a link to the EOL website.

SciVee provides video supplements for academic publications

The supercomputer center in San Diego has created a cool site called SciVee for scientists to upload brief videos introducing/explaining their publications.

There is quite some variety in the style of these short lectures (even though there are only a few currently posted). Some give a list of the key findings of the publications and others doing a much better job of making their work more accessible by providing an introduction/context and avoiding technical jargon.

Why Americans resist neuroscience more

Science has a special online feature this week on behavioral science. One of the articles is a review by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg (a fellow SymSys alum!) presents some interesting evidence about how dualistic ideas about mind/brain are present from an early age. They state:

Another consequence of people’s common-sense psychology is dualism, the belief that the mind is fundamentally different from the brain (5). This belief comes naturally to children. Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems. But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth (5, 17). Similarly, when told about a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, they believed that you would get a very smart pig, but one with pig beliefs and pig desires (18). For young children, then, much of mental life is not linked to the brain.


For one thing, debates about the moral status of embryos, fetuses, stem cells, and nonhuman animals are sometimes framed in terms of whether or not these entities possess immaterial souls (20, 21). What’s more, certain proposals about the role of evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging in criminal trials assume a strong form of dualism (22). It has been argued, for instance, that if one could show that a person’s brain is involved in an act, then the person himself or herself is not responsible, an excuse dubbed “my brain made me do it” (23).

The authors conclude that adult resistance to science is strongest in fields where scientific claims are contested by the society (that is, contested by non-science alternatives rather than by scientific uncertainty). They claim that this accounts for the difference in the United States (versus other countries with less vociferous advocacy of non-science) in the resistance to the central tenets of evolutionary biology and neuroscience.

I think this says something important about science education, namely that it should start earlier in life. And there’s no reason that neuroscience should be left as a “college-level” subject. I think modern neuroscience has progressed to the point where we can confidently teach some basics at a high-school or earlier stage. Judging from my own experiences, I think the desire to learn about neuroscience is certainly there in younger children.