Swarthmore Shifts From Psychobiology Special Major to Neuroscience Major

Despite its impressive academic credentials, Swarthmore has long lacked an officially recognized major in a field that is considered a staple at most other colleges: neuroscience. This scientific discipline is one of the most rapidly expanding fields of the 21st century, leaving students, professors, and potential applicants alike wondering why Swarthmore had yet to adapt its curriculum to accommodate it. This change has now happened, as the curriculum has shifted from providing for a special major in Psychobiology to one in Neuroscience.

For those interested in neuroscience, Swarthmore offered the special major of psychobiology, a similar academic track that covered many of the same subjects as neuroscience, but lacked the specific guidance and name recognition that comes with an official neuroscience major. With the addition of new faculty and a restructuring of the curriculum, though, Swarthmore has decided it is time to officially incorporate the new discipline into its list of recognized majors.

This change has been in the works for a while. According to Frank Durgin, a psychology professor and one of the core faculty for the new curriculum, “We’ve wanted to implement a Neuroscience special major for some time now… but until now we were concerned that the number of course offerings at Swarthmore in neuroscience was too limited.”

With the recent hiring of psychology professor Malathi Thothathiri, whose focus is in cognitive neuroscience, the college decided that it was time to make the switch. Kathleen Siwicki, a biology professor who has also played an important role in the switch and teaches one of the new major’s foundation courses, hopes that decision will hope to “modernize” the curriculum and provide more structured guidance for students interested in studying neuroscience.

This decision represents an important development for Swarthmore’s curriculum. Of the 31 colleges represented by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, an institutionally-supported organization of highly selective, private liberal arts colleges and universities, Swarthmore was the only one that didn’t offer the major.

According to biology professor Sara Burch, “the national interest in neuroscience at the undergraduate level has been growing steadily over the last decade or two, and prospective students frequently ask about whether we have such a program.” Philip Koshy ’12, a potential psychobiology major, said that neuroscience is more of a “buzzword” that would have more appeal both to students and outside institutions.

The major comes with a shift in curriculum, including the addition of new neuroscience-specific courses. One of these new courses is Cognitive Neuroscience, an introductory course that will be taught by Thothathiri. The new major will also feature advanced neuroscience seminars, which weren’t previously available. Ward predicts that the college will make more research opportunities available, including “research practica” neuroscience courses. Taken in the fall of senior year, these courses will give students an intimate research experience with experts in the field.

The neuroscience major is a regularized special major that has prerequisites in Biology, Chemistry, Math/Stat, and Psychology. The major has two foundation courses: Neurobiology (taught by Siwicki) and Physiological Psychology (taught by Allen Schneider). Neuroscience majors will also have to take a certain amount of Neuroscience electives, of which Thothathiri’s Cognitive Neuroscience is one. The Honors track is also available for neuroscience majors, and both tracks have a research thesis as part of their graduation requirements.

However, some are still skeptical about the change. Patrick Monari ’13, a previous psychobiology major who is now double majoring in psychology and biology because of the neuroscience major’s greater credit requirements, notes that since the courses listed under the new major are largely the same, it could still be more accurately described as “psychobiology.”

Siwicki also said that the change in the curriculum is a subtle one, and that the entry requirements for both majors are similar. She pointed out, though, that the new neuroscience major is more focused than the previous psychobiology one, which she hopes will provide more guidance for students interested in the field. Professor Thothathiri also stated that new curriculum for the major would ensure that students would have a greater exposure to topics and courses more specific to the field of neuroscience.

The new curriculum change will be most useful for freshmen interested in neuroscience. Juniors who are already psychobiology majors can continue on their current academic, as can sophomores who have planned out their future courses.

When asked if he planned to switch to the neuroscience major, Current Psychobiology major Philip Koshy ’12 wasn’t sure: the requirements for the neuroscience major were more stringent than for psychobiology, and there was a large enough difference between them that it would be difficult to switch tracks midstream.


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