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Without set plans, undergraduate involvement in Mind Brain Behavior Institute remains uncertain

Updated Oct. 31, 12:37 a.m.

When the new Manhattanville campus was dedicated earlier this week, the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute was highlighted as its academic centerpiece.

With state of the art laboratories and scientists at the forefront of their fields, MBBI is poised to be the best place to study neuroscience in the world, with the “incredible promise of discoveries that will have profound consequences for humanity” that will propel Columbia’s standing as a university, according to University President Lee Bollinger.

A critical part of the institute’s intellectual mission, Bollinger has said, is for the institute to “embrace the minds of undergraduates,” giving students the access to learn from some of the greatest minds in neuroscience and work in cutting-edge labs.

But as researchers and faculty prepare to move into the institute, the extent to which undergraduates will benefit from MBBI remains to be seen.

Interviews with over a dozen members of MBBI leadership, University administration, and Arts and Sciences faculty show that although the institute’s doors will open in the spring, there has been little to no effort made so far to ensure that undergraduates studying neuroscience will benefit from the institute.

Institute Co-Directors Thomas Jessell and Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Richard Axel have been given almost complete autonomy over the direction of MBBI, according to senior administrators. Although the institute’s leaders have touted the importance of including undergraduates and mentioned creating undergraduate-specific curriculum and programming, they have also said that their first priority is establishing the research component of the institute, and that they have not and will not begin mapping out undergraduates’ involvement until that goal is accomplished.

And while about a dozen labs out of 60 were initially promised to faculty in the Arts and Sciences, the organization responsible for teaching the majority of undergraduates and that houses the undergraduate neuroscience major, the number has dwindled to seven.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"78331","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"8000","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"8000"}}]]Graphic by Margaret Corn

“We’re not close to having achieved what’s possible,” Bollinger said. “These issues of integration, which include allocation of space and sharing of resources—there’s an ongoing dialogue and process that has to be built around notions of intellectual academic standards—and it is very much a matter for the faculty to work out … I’m hopeful that this will radiate outward more than it has.”

Given that there are about 10 labs still open in the institute, according to MBBI leadership, there could be room for more Arts and Sciences appointments. And in an effort to promote more university-wide collaboration, MBBI leadership has appointed Carol Mason, a Columbia University Medical Center professor and co-director of the doctoral program in neurobiology and behavior, to begin thinking about how to integrate more areas of the University and eventually develop undergraduate programming.

For Executive Vice President and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences David Madigan, it is crucial that these opportunities are seized and MBBI fulfills its obligation to students.

“What's magic about a place like this ... [is] the interplay between being at the cutting edge of knowledge and imparting this knowledge to students. That blend is right at the heart of what this place is about, so MBBI has to embrace that model,” Madigan said. “It doesn't belong at this research university unless it embraces that model. Otherwise, it might as well be a standalone institute in the middle of nowhere.”

Unrealized potential

Both administrators and MBBI leadership have emphasized that a critical goal for the institute is to strengthen the ties between the Morningside and Manhattanville campuses, and they have conceptualized a breadth of new ways for undergraduates to engage with neuroscience at the institute.

“My hope is that undergraduates will have increased opportunities for working in laboratories and working with faculty. My hope is that there will be even new majors that will be created and new opportunities for faculty across the whole institution to teach in the College, SEAS, and General Studies,” Bollinger said. “This should enrich the lives of undergraduates in every sense, and that is a mission from the beginning.”

The new academic ventures at MBBI also has the potential to significantly impact curricula for undergraduates.

“The other thing about having 56 neuroscientists sitting close to the Morningside campus is—how do you change the curriculum of teaching in the Morningside repertoire of teaching courses? Do we want a neuroscience or mind and brain course as part of the Core Curriculum?” Jessell said. “It's an opportunity, again, for impacting undergraduate lives through the construction of appealing courses, as well as taking people into the lab.”

For a small number of faculty—up to seven in the Arts and Sciences and three in the School of Engineering and Applied Science—MBBI will afford them the opportunity to work in cutting-edge labs and invite a small number of undergraduate students to work with them.

Psychology professor Sarah Woolley, one of the four Arts and Sciences faculty members with a lab in MBBI, emphasized the importance of including undergraduates in research. She noted that there is not enough lab space at the Morningside campus to accommodate all of the students who want to do research and that MBBI will allow her to expand opportunities for students.

“We all got our start as undergrads working in labs,” Woolley said. “You can't understand that you want to be a scientist from books or classes. You can be interested in the material, but you only learn if it works for you by being in a lab.”

Woolley also noted that MBBI would enable undergraduates to more easily do research with faculty at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

But labs can only accommodate a limited number of students—typically three to five undergraduates work in one lab—and MBBI leadership has not decided what learning opportunities beyond research, such as seminar courses, lectures, or mentorship programs, might be offered. When Spectator reached out to Arts and Sciences faculty involved in the neuroscience major, several declined to comment on the major’s involvement with MBBI because the connection had not yet been clearly defined to them.

Jessell and Giancarlo Bonagura, the executive director and chief operating officer of MBBI, said that planning to ensure that undergraduates will be able to benefit from MBBI has necessarily fallen behind the institute’s research priorities.

“This has been happening at breakneck speed,” Jessel said. “We've been trying to achieve things in five-and-a-half years or six years of helter-skelter activity, and we appreciate everything that is possible, but there's just not enough hours in the day to achieve everything all at once, so we've been forced to prioritize in terms of what we do and when we do it.”

“First we have to be mindful of what the institute was originally designed to do, which is to be a neuroscience institute, to focus on research,” Bonagura said. “Once we hit a steady state, which will hopefully be by next summer, we’ll be able to think about some other types of programming.”

When asked why they could not work on both areas simultaneously, Bonagura said that the “complexity is such that we really need to focus on getting the building up and running and so on and so forth.”

But students majoring in neuroscience like David Lopez, CC ’19, are excited to start cultivating a relationship with faculty and researchers at MBBI as soon as possible through courses or a mentorship program.

“[Meeting MBBI faculty] would give me a focus on the type of neuroscience I want to focus on, or give me a more long-term view about what I might want to do with my degree,” Lopez said.

Students and faculty have also supported the idea of having some of the academic luminaries at MBBI teach small undergraduate seminars. But there’s been little pressure to ensure that this happens.

“One thing a provost can't do, or a president or a department chair for that matter, is tell people what to teach,” Provost John H. Coatsworth said. “We can provide incentives, we can inspire, we can persuade, but if you want to know what Eric Kandel is going to be teaching, you gotta go to Dr. Eric Kandel. No one's going to tell him.”

When asked if he would commit to teaching an undergraduate seminar, Kandel said that while he may not want to teach a course entirely by himself, he responded, “Why not? I love teaching undergraduates.”

From Morningside to Manhattanville

Psychology professor and neuroscience major adviser Frances Champagne said that while she believes students will have research opportunities with CUMC faculty and the Arts and Sciences faculty at MBBI, having more of an Arts and Sciences presence would facilitate more interaction between students and faculty.

“There may be fewer labs there that are just the broader themes of mind and behavior, and more that are very hardcore neuroscience,” Champagne said. “Obviously it would be better, the more Arts and Sciences faculty there are, the more attractive it will be to people because the students are taking classes with faculty from Arts and Sciences, and that's a lot of times where you get your inspiration to want to work with someone or pursue a certain area because you take a course with them and realize this is something you're very motivated to do.”

In the initial planning stages of MBBI, the responsibility of deciding which faculty members would receive lab space was given to Jessell, Kandel, and Axel, who were given the authority to allocate space on an ad hoc basis. As of now, five Arts and Sciences faculty will have space in the institute—two  from the psychology department, two from the statistics department, and one  from the ecology, evolution, and environmental biology department.

“The process by which Arts and Sciences faculty have been engaged and included into the MBBI effort has been very diverse,” Peter de Menocal, dean of science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said. “I think there are some people who were identified very early on, were brought on with great enthusiasm, real commitments. I think that’s a very strong positive of what’s happened so far. What we still don’t have answers to is how there are other people who are still on campus whose relationship to MBBI is still not solidified.”

Faculty from departments across the University have emphasized how space in MBBI would allow them to expose undergraduates to groundbreaking research and build new curriculum. But many departments that have a cross-disciplinary interest in neuroscience and could have facilitated neuroscience research, including the physics department, were not given space in the building.

“One could imagine, particularly if we had a joint hire [in MBBI], that that would lead to new courses being developed, which have a neuroscience-physics component. ... I’m thinking there would be an appetite for that among the students,” physics department chair Michael Tuts said. “Having that course be taught in the MBBI is good because you’re now closer to the neuroscience aspect, and that would bring students into the building, which I think has kind of a collateral benefit, just from being in the building.”

Administrators are hopeful that future conversations with MBBI leadership will yield tangible results.

“It would have been nicer to have a stronger numerical Arts and Sciences presence in the building, but we're working, we're in continued discussions with them,” Madigan said. “But space is a huge challenge on this campus—particularly in the next five years prior to Uris coming online—so to the extent that we can have some of our folks working in that building, that is a huge plus to us. We're in a reasonable place, but we'd like to have greater involvement.”

Faculty and administrators have said they recognize they have before them the opportunity to ensure that Bollinger’s original vision for a University-wide venture is fulfilled, allowing undergraduates to participate in an endeavor that Bollinger called “a great human need, a great societal need.”

MBBI leadership has signaled a willingness, both in interviews and through Mason’s appointment as inter-school chair, to collaborate with Arts and Sciences faculty more extensively. But Woolley noted that all areas of the University must work together to find ways to provide more opportunities for undergraduates.

“[MBBI] is not just up to those who go in the building—it's up to everybody on the Arts and Sciences campus, it's up to the students, it's up to our medical school colleagues,” Woolley said. “We're not the only determinants of what this culture turns out to be and what it's potential is. It's up to everybody to be interested …  and to care and to become a part of it.”

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