Program Description

Goals of the Program

The Graduate Program in Neuroscience was formally established in 1981 as part of the University of Connecticut Graduate School and the Ph.D. Program in Biomedical Sciences at UConn Health. The Neuroscience Program is committed to fostering for students an interdisciplinary training environment towards understanding the normal function and disorders of the nervous system. Special emphasis is placed upon preparing students for a research and teaching career in both academic and industrial settings.

The interdepartmental nature of the Program offers comprehensive conceptual and experimental training in molecular, systems and behavioral neuroscience. The faculty of the Neuroscience Program engages in research that involves cellular, molecular, and developmental neurobiology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neurochemistry, neuroendocrinology, neuropharmacology, neuroimaging and neuropathology. Specific examples of research topics include:

  • Cellular and molecular bases of synaptic neurotransmission, including the structure and function of ligand-gated neurotransmitter receptors and voltage-sensitive ion channels
  • Genetic and epigenetic regulation of membrane biogenesis in neurons and glia
  • Electrophysiology of excitable tissue
  • Development of the autonomic nervous system
  • Development of neural tissue and of the neural crest
  • Stimulus coding, synaptic organization and development of sensory systems
  • Structure and function of auditory and gustatory systems
  • Computational neuroscience
  • Degeneration, regeneration, plasticity, and transplantation
  • fMRI research/functional mapping of normal and diseased brain
  • Neurobiology of degenerative disorders, notably Huntington’s Disease
  • Alzheimer’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, deafness and loss of hearing.

Philosophy of the Graduate Program
One focus of our Program is research, which is aimed at understanding the processes that underlie neural development, mature neuronal function, plasticity, nervous system organization, learning and memory, normal ageing, neurodegeneration, mental disorders, substance abuse, and behavioral abnormalities. Another focus is teaching and the mentoring needed to train the next generation of neuroscientists so that they can build upon, and branch out from, the current store of knowledge in neuroscience. Our methods range from molecular biology to human psychophysics. What makes our program unique is that our faculty, with their diverse interests, recognize the need to include a broad spectrum of topics in our training program. The language of a psychophysicist may seem far removed from that of a single cell PCR cloner, but both will be needed if we are to gain enough insight into nervous system function so that we can design therapeutic strategies to prevent disease progression and repair the damaged nervous system.

Recalling a Bit of History
The diversity we must encompass in Neuroscience is illustrated by recalling a few of the many important discoveries of the past few decades. Studies on the squid giant axon led to our understanding of the ionic basis of the action potential. Studies on the frog neuromuscular junction defined the process of chemical neurotransmission and the electric organ provided the molecular basis of ion channels. Biochemists used purified synaptic vesicles to identify every protein in these critical organelles, but yeast geneticists had the information needed to quickly understand the function of each protein. Patch clampers let us study individual ion channels and molecular biologists let us dissect the channels into working parts and relate genetic disorders to specific mutations in these channels. Cell biologists provided the tools that now let us watch activity-dependent alterations in neuronal morphology. Endocrinologists forced us to include steroid and thyroid hormones as important short and long term signaling molecules affecting neuronal function. Biochemical studies of second messenger systems revealed cross-talk and plasticity, factors contributing to signaling pattern complexity and perhaps underlying learning and memory. The visual system revealed the receptive field and topographical organization of sensory systems and the cortex gave us cortical barrels. Developmental neurobiologists showed us roles for multiple innervation and competition that we see as refinement of connections and plasticity in the adult CNS. The identified neuronal growth and survival factors provide hope for prevention of neuronal degeneration and controlled reinnervation.

What We Want Our Students to Learn
To appreciate and contribute to these many discoveries, from the earliest anatomical mapping to the latest gene cloning, students of the field of neuroscience need to have both a broad understanding of the historical background of the field, and what the key questions are today, where the field is going, and the key methodologies to reach the future goals. The goal of any good Neuroscience Training Program is to prepare students for the next several decades of their careers, a truly daunting task. The nervous system has laid down many hurdles for us, as if to make the task more fun and challenging: there are easily hundreds of cell types in the nervous system, more than in any other tissue; many neurons live for roughly the lifetime of the organism, again unlike most other tissues; and the functions of neurons can change dramatically over the lifespan of the organism.

Over the next few decades, a number of experimental preparations approaches will be very important, and we want our students to be ready to use these approaches and, more importantly, the as-yet-to-be-invented methods, and to have the knowledge needed to develop the next generation of approaches. With knowledge of their genomes complete, studies on C. elegans and, Drosophila will reach a new level. Bioinformatics will be a key research tool available to all who have the skills to access the information. Mice expressing transgenes of interest and engineered for tissue-specific expression or lack or expression of specific genes will be essential tools. Proper use of these mice will require a variety of experimental approaches, ranging from behavioral to biochemical to anatomical and electrophysiological. Insight gained from crystallographic studies of key proteins will allow neuroscientists to probe specific protein-protein interactions in the proper cellular context and facilitate design of pharmaceutical compounds. New disease models will take us closer to studying human pathology and non-invasive methods and well-defined test questions will allow us to study humans as test subjects. Noninvasive optical methods will allow information to be gained about population averages of neurons in a way heretofore impossible.

The critical, exciting, key experimental questions of today will merit intense discussion and investigation. For our students, the ability to identify the critical questions of the future is essential. A broad background of knowledge, and a willingness to appreciate the insights gained from many different approaches, are key to this ability. These are attitudes that students acquire, almost unknowingly, from the faculty around them. Our faculty are excited about their own work. They are also interested in the work of their colleagues. They respect the contributions that can be made by psychophysicists, X-ray crystallographers, electrophysiologists, molecular biologists and anatomists and know that progress on the big questions requires the patient cooperation of outstanding researchers with diverse areas of expertise. Probably the key ingredient here is respect for contributions that come from the different approaches and a commitment to spanning the gaps between these seemingly disparate worlds.

Admissions and Financial Support

The program seeks individuals of outstanding merit with a record of high achievement in science and a full commitment to research and teaching in the biomedical sciences. Evidence of exceptional scientific ability can be provided by outstanding performance in a rigorous basic science program at the college level or in a laboratory research project. The Neuroscience Program will consider students from any accredited college or university with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in any of the physical sciences, biological sciences or liberal arts. Persons with a degree in social sciences will be considered provided they have a sufficient concentration of courses in the sciences to prepare them for graduate work in neuroscience. A solid background in general biology is required, while mathematics (through calculus), physics, organic chemistry, and basic biochemistry are strongly recommended.

Detailed information on the application process, is available on our How to Apply page.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The deadline for the receipt of all application materials for the Ph.D. in Biomedical Science program is December 1.

If you have questions, please contact BiomedSciAdmissions@uchc.edu.

Candidates for admission are required to take the general Graduate Record Examination and to submit their scores with their application to the Neuroscience Graduate Program Admissions Committee at the above address. Foreign students are also required to take the TOEFL Examination and submit their scores, in addition to the GRE scores.

All students in the Neuroscience Program receive financial support. This support is awarded on a competitive basis, with the decision based on undergraduate course performance, past laboratory experience, GRE scores and letters of recommendation. Sources of funds for first and second year students are: UConn Health Graduate Fellowships, NIH Training Grants, and departmental funds. More advanced students are usually supported by grant funds from their advisor.

At present the financial support package includes: a) full payment of tuition; b) a stipend of $32,000 for 2019-20. There are no teaching responsibilities associated with this stipend.

Curriculum

Courses are chosen to provide a broad background in Neuroscience as well as to acquire the background necessary for the student’s specific research interests. In the first year, course selections are made in consultation with first year faculty advisors. For students on Graduate Program Committee Assistantships, first year faculty advisors are appointed by the Associate Dean of the Graduate School or by the Neuroscience Program. At the beginning of the second year, when students have chosen a laboratory for their thesis research, courses are selected in consultation with a student’s Major (Thesis) Advisor.

A suggested timeline summary for the first two years is shown below. The prospectus occurs in the third year. The third year and beyond are primarily devoted to laboratory research.

Program Course Requirements

Students who want to pursue their thesis work in the Neuroscience Graduate Program (also referred to as Neuroscience Area of Concentration) must complete a minimum of 7 credits of course work in Neuroscience-related topics.

Courses that apply toward the 7 credit Neuroscience Graduate Program requirement are

(See Appendix, p. 22, for course descriptions):

  Course Credits Title Fall Spring
* Meds 5372 3 Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Neuroscience (1st year course) X
* Meds 5371 3 Systems Neuroscience (1st year course) X
Meds 5341 3 Molecular Neurobiology of Excitable Membranes X
Meds 5377 3 Neurobiology of Hearing X
# Meds 5383 3 Neurobiology of Disease X1
* Meds 5384 2 Brain Microcircuits X
# Meds 5385 3 Molecular Mechanisms of Neurobiological Disorders X2
  Meds 6372 2 Neurobiology of Glia X

1 Alternate even years / 2 Alternate odd years
*           Suggested core courses.
#            Required course for NIH NRSA pre-doctoral candidates/awardees (one or both).

 

Grades

In order to remain in good standing, students must maintain an overall GPA of 3.0 per the guidelines of the University of Connecticut Graduate School.

Credit for Previous Course Work

Students may obtain credit for elective courses if they have already taken equivalent graduate-level courses at UConn Health or elsewhere (e.g., Master Degree programs). Requests for credit should be submitted in writing to the Director. The person best able to assess the previous course work is the director of the course from which credit is sought. Thus, the course director’s approval must be obtained and indicated on the letter to the Program Director; final approval rests with the Graduate School.

MD/PhD and DMD/PhD Students

The Neuroscience Graduate Program recognizes the extensive course work taken in phase 1 of the MD/PhD and DMD/PhD Programs. Thus, students in these Programs will take into consideration this previous course work when planning their curriculum in Neuroscience during the PhD phase of the dual degree programs. Additional course work for such students in this phase will be determined in consultation with the student’s Major Advisor and Thesis Advisory Committee.

Labratory Rotations

In addition to course work, all doctoral degree students are expected to perform 2-3 separate laboratory rotations during the first year (MEDS 6496). Students who want to explore research in Neuroscience are encouraged to perform these rotations in laboratories of Neuroscience Graduate Program faculty. Students should confer with their first year Faculty Advisors in choosing a laboratory for rotation research. Students on assistantships from the Graduate Program Committee must obtain permission from their first year advisors to register for laboratory rotation. Registration requires a lab rotation form http://health.uconn.edu/student-services/wp-content/uploads/sites/58/2016/06/form_labrotation.pdf.

It should be recognized that research rotations are a combination of two components: 1) The work obligation for the graduate research assistantship that provides the student’s stipend and tuition waiver; 2) A graded course (MEDS 6496) for which students earn 1 credit in each semester of the first year. The laboratory of the rotation research project will become the student’s home base during this time of exciting exploration. Thus, when students are not in class, they will be in the laboratory working on the rotation research project. Balancing the demands of course work and the rotation research is essential to a successful laboratory rotation. At the end of the semester, students present a short talk (15 min) to fellow students and faculty describing the background, goals, and findings of the rotation research project.

Laboratory Rotations serve two important purposes. First, they enhance the breadth of the graduate educational experience in the first year by exposing students to new techniques and paradigms and providing training in proper experimental design and analysis. Successful performance in classes depends on a good grasp of the scientific method and an ability to understand and interpret experiments. Second, rotations afford students an intensive opportunity to learn about the research of laboratories that could become their thesis laboratory. Thus, the benefit of a laboratory rotation is not only intellectual. It could have tremendous practical impact on the student’s ability to move quickly into the thesis research project. Moreover, effort invested and expertise gained from carefully chosen laboratory rotations could result in great dividends for the rest of the student’s graduate career. Finally, the rotation project will let the student become sufficiently engaged in the performance of a research project to determine whether he or she has the passion for research that is necessary for successful scientific careers in academics or industry.

Neuroscience Journal Club

Students are required* to participate in Neuroscience Journal Club (MEDS 6497) for the duration of their graduate career. Neuroscience Journal Club, which meets each Wednesday from noon – 1pm during the school year, is a major focal point of the Neuroscience Graduate Program.  Participants include students, post-doctoral fellows, and faculty. Presenters select a current research article that they find noteworthy, make the reference available to the UConn Health Neuroscience community, and then present appropriate background, the article itself, and their critique of the work. The diversity of topics selected by presenters, together with input from attendees, makes this an important learning opportunity for all participants. A goal for each speaker is to allow researchers with diverse interests and backgrounds to appreciate the subject matter of the paper selected. Students are encouraged to consult with their faculty advisors as well as other students and faculty for help in selecting an article. Grades are based on attendance and participation, as well as on the student’s presentation.

*Exceptions may be made to those students who have received written approval from their thesis committee to write their thesis.

 

rev. 11/19