A growing program at Hope College finds its focus in the blurring boundaries of science.
The college is developing a concentration in neuroscience, which blends traditionally-independent disciplines including biology, chemistry and psychology in studying the brain. A new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is helping Hope create a laboratory course to complement a lecture section established in the spring of 2001.
Where things go from there has yet to be determined, but according to Dr. Leah Chase of the Hope faculty the initial course has been well received.
"There's definitely interest among the student population in having such a program," said Chase, who holds a joint appointment as an assistant professor of biology and chemistry and was brought to Hope in 2000 to initiate the program. "We've maxed out the enrollment both times."
Such interdisciplinary approaches are not new, either nationally or at Hope. The college has offered a major in biochemistry, the blending of biology and chemistry, since 1989. Members of the chemistry and physics faculties regularly collaborate on research projects. The departments of biology and mathematics are currently developing a new course jointly. The college's new science center, currently under construction, has been designed to encourage faculty from different departments to work together.
Chase noted that while the field of neuroscience has been around for decades, the greatest growth in the discipline--a result of rising interest in and federal funding for brain research--took place during the 1990s, a period that she said has been termed "the decade of the brain."
In keeping with neuroscience's multidisciplinary focus, the lecture course at Hope has examined a variety of topics, ranging from neurotransmitters; to how a group of neurons work together for a response, such as the "knee-jerk reaction"; to memory and learning; to diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
The new laboratory course will adapt previously published exercises in two general areas: neurophysiology, and learning and memory. Significantly, according to Chase, Hope's approach will require students to move beyond the exercises to applying the lessons in research projects of their own.
"The emphasis in the Natural Science Division at Hope is that science is best learned by doing," she said. "We want them to be active participants, learn the scientific method and become better scientists because of that."
The $27,760 grant from the NSF, matched by the college, is providing support for the next two years, and is funding both development of the laboratory course and the acquisition of equipment. Hope will pilot the laboratory in the spring of 2003, as a complement to the lecture course.
Chase is the principal investigator of the grant. Dr. Christopher Barney, who is the T. Elliott Weier Professor of Biology at Hope, is serving as co-principal investigator.