PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Shelly Dickinson

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Shelly Dickinson is Assistant Professor of Psychology at St. Olaf College.

It has become increasingly clear that scientific research has become a multi-disciplinary effort. A look at the authors of many recent scientific articles quickly reveals a multitude of departments or divisions involved in the work. And new, explicitly interdisciplinary areas of research such as neuroscience and bioinformatics are rapidly expanding. As a behavioral neuroscientist with interests in drug addiction and neuropharmacology I have on occasion suffered an identity crisis when forced to declare whether I’m a psychologist or a biologist – in my mind this distinction is largely semantic and choosing one label does not describe my research questions or the courses I’m most passionate about teaching. But, while difficult and sometimes uncomfortable, does this “labeling” issue really create a problem? Does trying to always maintain traditional core disciplinary boundaries hurt our students? Our research? I believe the answer to these questions is yes.

Science in the real world is a highly collaborative effort, and many of those collaborations involve colleagues from multiple disciplines. To best prepare our students for success in this real world environment, we need to show them by example that approaching a question from multiple angles can lead to a much richer understanding of the topic at hand. My vision of success is to further develop our neuroscience concentration into a truly interdisciplinary neuroscience major at St. Olaf College that combines coursework in several disciplines with a wide range of laboratory experiences designed to teach students that the scientific method is not discipline specific and that maybe the best way to answer a “psychology” question is with a “biology” experiment.

Virtually by definition the field of neuroscience is interdisciplinary – it is the intersection of psychology and biology, with chemistry and math, and sometimes philosophy added to the mix. With neural net modeling we can add computer science and even some areas of physics. To realize the vision of a neuroscience major, I hope faculty from most, if not all, of these disciplines will be willing to be involved in discussion of curricular and programmatic issues. In the coming years, our neuroscience curriculum will be revamped, facilities and new lab courses will be designed, and a thoughtful plan for developing an exciting, competitive undergraduate neuroscience program will be laid out. As we move forward with these plans it is crucial that we learn from others what does and does not work. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, but we do need to overcome the often-seen inclination of institutions and people to resist change. Overcoming this barrier and increasing the visibility of the neuroscience program on campus are, to my mind, the most important first steps to take on the road to a neuroscience major.

PKAL and the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience offer invaluable resources and ideas for development of such programs (e.g., consultations with people who have successfully built undergraduate neuroscience programs) but leaders must emerge who are willing to advocate and push the program forward.