Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

The Importance of Teaching Neuroscience Research at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

The Importance of Teaching Neuroscience Research at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Article excerpt

African Americans make up about 12.5% of the U.S. population, yet they earn just 2.5% of science and engineering doctorate degrees (National Science Foundation, 2015). Minorities make up less than 5% of science and engineering faculty at the top 50 tier-one research universities (Nelson & Brammer, 2010), and this underrepresentation does not appear to be improving. First-time graduate school enrollment of African Americans from 2012 to 2013 showed the least amount of growth of all ethnic groups (Thompson, 2014).

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have tended to focus on academic experiences for students in the classroom, but there is a growing need to offer more research opportunities (Gasman, 2013). A bachelor's degree is not always sufficient to build a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (Bergen, 2013; Thompson, 2014), and competition for limited graduate/professional school enrollment slots is fierce. I would argue that a powerful way to prepare students at HBCUs for future work in STEM fields is to promote undergraduate neuroscience research.

Neuroscience is a growing interdisciplinary STEM research field. It encompasses behavior, genetics, molecular biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, computer science, mathematics, medicine, and pharmacology. Drawing knowledge and techniques from across these disciplines, student experience in neuroscience can support graduate study in any of the component domains. Like many STEM fields, African Americans are underrepresented in neuroscience (Sved, 2013): Of the current 30 most influential neuroscientists, only two are African Americans (Fox, 2014).

Creating new neuroscience courses across and within disciplines may not be practical given limited faculty and existing curricular demands. A pragmatic and cost-effective solution is to offer research opportunities outside the classroom. There is growing support for this idea (Hall et al., 2014). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have created numerous funding mechanisms (NIH: BUILD, R15, NRMN, MARC U-STAR, R25; NSF: HBCU-UP, REU, RUI, HBCU RISE, CREST) to help encourage greater participation of underrepresented populations in research. Two postsecondary institutions are actively trying to address this through a Howard Hughes Medical Institute 5-year program to prepare underrepresented students for STEM careers (Keeley & Gutnikoff, 2014).

Research gives students unique opportunities to improve communication skills through the collaboration with their mentor and participating in the process of publication and presentation. Research cultivates the critical thinking skills required to assess the reliability and validity of research methodology and statistical results, using previous data to drive new research hypotheses. Pragmatically, bringing a project from concept though development, execution, and publication provides a real-world perspective of a career in science that is not apparent in textbook passages laden with references (Crowe & Brakke, 2008; Lopatto, 2010).

One of the specific advantages of undergraduate research experience in neuroscience is an expansion of technical skills, as familiarity with neuroscience terminology and techniques requires that students practice cutting-edge technologies. Particularly within human neuroimaging research, students learn valuable techniques such as Freesurfer, Statistical Parametric Mapping (SPM) via Matlab, and FSL to perform data collection and analyses. Students must become familiar with standard command line coding, as well as script coding in Matlab, Python, and Java. These skills prepare students for research assistant jobs in national laboratories, graduate program success, and placement in IT positions.

Beyond technical and communication skills and improved future prospects, neuroscience research offers a big-picture intellectual benefit. …

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