|FUN and |
the Neuroscience Enterprise
|John J. Boitano, PhD, Fairfield University (CT) |
A prominent goal of the recent White House report entitled "Science in the National Interest," is to "produce the finest scientists and engineers for the 21st century" (Executive Office, 1994). A corollary of that goal, as suggested by Good and Lane (1994), is that "scientifically and technologically trained people are an invaluable national asset" (p. 741). It is just such people who are scientifically literate and are able to evaluate accurately the findings of science in order to make informed rational decisions in the application of these findings for the good of society. And if one of these informed decision-makers is a legislator responsible for influencing the passage of laws affecting the nation and society at large, then all the better; but if the lawmaker is scientifical challenged, then decisions founded in ignorance and fueled by emotion or a misdirected morality might actually delay, impede, or even eliminate scientific progress in areas prepotent for the 21st century.
A prime example of this legislative constraint on scientific advance was the Reagan-Bush ban on the transplantation of fetal tissue in overcoming Parkinsonian-like symptoms. The fear, of course, was that women would deliberately become pregnant for financial gain, and thus, sell their aborted fetuses to the highest bidder. Counteracting this argument was the observation that Sweden, which had no such moratorium, continued to make scientific progress without significant problems. They had developed highly codified ethical standards in which neither the donor nor the recipient were acquainted, and consequently, no money would be exchanged.
A second example is of more recent origin and is in the realm of genetic engineering or gene splicing. There is currently a great deal of interest and excitement, tempered by a not uncommon amount of anxiety and ignorance surrounding Dolly, the sheep that was cloned from an adult ovine mammary gland cell, and what this recombinant DNA methodology portends for the future. In early January of this year, a 69-year-old physicist from Chicago, Richard Seed, announced plans to open a human cloning clinic in order to help infertile couples have children by attempting to implement the newly developed cloning techniques. While human cloning might be a distant prospect for alleviating infertility, most scientists are skeptical that it is even possible or even feasible. In addition there are major practical and ethical arguments against human cloning. These include: (1) a safety issue, namely, that the competency of embryonic development after nuclear transfer is quite low and the probability of a terotogenic abnormality is high which creates a serious risk for the potential offspring; (2) a violation issue, namely, an encroachment upon the dignity and integrity of human individuals. For these reasons, professional organizations, as the Society for Developmental Biology and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, have accepted the recommendations of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to endorse a voluntary (5-year) moratorium on cloning human beings. On March 4, 1997, President Clinton ordered a ban on federal funding for any cloning of human beings. One day later, Representative Ehlers (R-MI) introduced legislation banning funding for all human cloning research. Now, this is where the problem begins. If federal funding is banned for all cloning research, if imprecise or misused technical language is used in these resolutions (this is the scientific literacy issue), and if it is passed, then valuable and necessary biomedical research would be effectively halted.
Now, what are some advantages in the application of cloning procedures to the human condition? Transgenic sheep have already been cloned to express a human clotting factor protein in their milk which can be used, at less risk and less cost, for facilitating blood coagulation in hemophiliacs (Schnieke et al., 1997). In the realm of the potential, cloning techniques could be used to repair or replace diseased and damaged human tissues as in the regeneration of dopamine neurons for Parkinson's disease, and GABA and acetylcholine neurons for Huntington's chorea, or even regenerated skin for burn victims. In addition, these procedures could aid in (a) the development of better animal models of hereditary disorders; (b) the use of animals as organ donors; (c) the fight against diabetes and cancer; as well as (d) uncovering secrets about the nature of the aging process.
In advocating a national scientific literacy for students and the general public, Ramirez (1997) has suggested that:
science education should prepare citizens . . . to participate fully in national discourse that is intimately linked with a fundamental knowledge of science and technology; to make informed, scientifically sound decisions in their private lives, and to compete in settings requiring a technologically sophisticated workforce (p. 166).
How can the neuroscience enterprise contribute to these objectives? The answer resides in the interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience. What was once called physiological psychology, and subsequently, biological psychology or psychobiology, has now been expanded to "include all aspects of neural structure and function, from its genetic determination to the highest expression of its activity in human behavior" (Cowan, 1978). The goal of neuroscience is an undfirstanding of the molecular, biochemical, cellular, and physiological mechanisms underlying nervous system functioning, overt behavior and mental processes, especially "how the brain perceives and initiates action, how it learns and remembers" (Kandel, 1982, p. 302). By its very nature it stresses the linking of the traditional sciences including their diverse techniques and methodologies in an effort to address problems of common interest. Thus, the doing of current-day neuroscience research requires a renaissance approach encompassing a working knowledge of, for example, animal care, surgical intervention, histological proficiency, behavioral testing, statistical analyses, research design, manuscript preparation, computer fluency, and last, but by no means least, grantsmanship. In addition to the interconnectedness of the traditional sciences, neuroscience has extended its embrace to the arts curriculum. Courses in Mind and Brain or Neurophilosophy have begun to appear on college campuses. What once was studied by the philosopher as epistemology (the theory of the nature of knowledge) is now also studied by the cognitive neuroscientist as the problem of the representation of knowledge. In similar fashion, the study of consciousness is now being explored by a spectrum of approaches, from the philosophy of mind and dream research to neuropsychology, pharmacology, molecular dynamics, and even the quantum physics of reality. Not to be outdone by the theoretical neuroscientist, philosophers are using neural networks and connectionist modeling techniques to uncover the mysteries of the mind.
As we approach the end of the Decade of the Brain (and make preparation to usher in the Decade of Behavior), it is appropriate to evaluate the impact of neuroscience on the development of both undergraduate and graduate programs in the colleges and universities throughout the United States. Paralleling the explosive growth in new facts and information about the functioning of the central nervous system, augmented by once unimaginable technological advances, has been the generation of student interest, and a desire to be part of uncovering the mysteries of, what some have called, "our last frontier." In response to this groundswell of intellectual neurocuriosity, college administrators and faculty have instituted courses of study leading to degrees in neuroscience.
There are three organizations dedicated to introducing the excitement of neuroscience to a broad range of students. The parent organization is the Society for Neuroscience (SN), founded in 1970 with a charter membership of 400, and which now numbers in excess of 25,000. While SN is predominantly a research organization, in recent years, it has, in conjunction with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, supported a "Brain Awareness Week," in which members attempt to elevate public awareness of brain research by sponsoring lab tours, K through 12 classroom outreach programs, television and radio interviews with neuroscientists, exhibits at high school fairs, and even hosting interactive networks, such as BEEMNET (Brain-Exchange Electronic Mentorship Network) with elementary school children. The second organization is the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (ANDP). It is comprised of departmental chairs and program directors from colleges and universities throughout North America. ANDP's registry of training programs currently describes 208 graduate programs and 42 undergraduate programs. This listing contains appropriate information useful to both future trainees searching for a school to attend and administrators who wish to compare other programs with their own. The third national organization is the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN).
It is comprised of neuroscientists from private liberal arts colleges and state/research universities who have a particular interest in teaching undergraduates. Its purpose is to advance the interdisciplinary study of all facets of neuroscience on the undergraduate level by the promotion of research in neuroscience both as a model for and to encourage participation by undergraduates, to develop undergraduate courses in neuroscience; to develop professional competency in the latest method of neuroscience in order to share them with undergraduates; and to contribute towards the knowledge base of neuroscience through meetings, professional contacts, reports, papers/posters, discussions, publications, and in general to advance scientific interests and inquiry. To accomplish these goals, FUN has (a) established an award for excellence in the teaching of undergraduates; (b) created a newsletter highlighting undergraduate teaching; (c) initiated and supported faculty development workshops focusing on neuroscience issues, as curriculum and laboratory experiments; (d) established Travel Awards to support attendance and poster presentations at the Annual meetings of SN by outstanding undergraduate students.
This past year FUN received a total of 17 applications from undergraduates throughout the United States and Canada, more than a threefold increase over each of the previous 5 years. This perhaps signals an increased awareness on the part of faculty that such a program offers recognition and encouragement for students for what can be accomplished at the undergraduate level and for what it portends for the future of neuroscience. Of the 17 applicants, 47% came from psychology departments, with the remainder representing biology, or neuroscience. In fact, two of the top three award recipients were from psychology departments.
In conclusion, let me say that there are parallels between the activities of FUN and the goals of Psi Chi. Both provide the opportunity to experience the complexity and richness of an original scientific undertaking. Both award excellence in research. Both have programs designed to increase identification with the discipline outside the classroom. Both provide the opportunity for interaction with peers and established professionals through convention presentations. And it is just such activity which allows wise decisions to be made regarding career choices and professional paths.
Cowan, W. M. (1978). Preface. Annual Review Neuroscience, 1, vii.
Executive Office of the President, Office of Science and Technology Policy, (1994). Science in the national interest. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Good, M. L., & Lane, N. F. (1994). Producing the finest scientists and engineers for the 21st century. Science, 266, 741-743.
Kandel, E. (1982). The origins of modern neuroscience. Annual Review Neuroscience, 5, 302.
Ramirez, J. J. (1997). Undergraduate education in neuroscience: A model for interdisciplinary study. Neuroscientist, 3, 166-168.
Schnieke, A. E., Kind, A. J., Ritchie, W. A., Mycock, K., Scott, A. R., Ritchie, M., Wilmut, I., Coleman, A., & Campbell, K. H. S. (1997). Human factor IX transgenic sheep produced by transfer of nuclei from transfected fetal fibroblasts. Science, 278, 2130-2133.
[This article was originally presented by Dr. Boitano, president of Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN), as part of a Psi Chi Symposium titled "So, You're Thinking of Neuroscience" at the annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Boston, MA, February 28, 1998.]