Neuroscience Students Explore the Mysteries of the Mind

March 1st, 2007 / Advancement

Neir Eshel ’07 has not allowed one semester to pass without taking a course that would help him learn more about the brain and its functioning. That’s in part because Eshel, a molecular biology major and certificate student in neuroscience, has an intense curiosity about the mind. But it is also because he realizes that researchers are poised to make major breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works—and he wants to be in on the action.

“This is a relatively new area, and there are fairly new technologies just now being developed to help examine the mind,” said Eshel, who received training that allowed him to use some of those cutting edge tools in preparing his senior thesis, which explores the activity of the brain’s prefrontal cortex when people prepare to carry out a task. “It’s exciting to be in a field in which you have the possibility of making fundamental contributions.

Many Princeton students agree, and the result is a burgeoning demand among undergraduates for neuroscience studies. In 2003, eight students received certificates in the field. For the Class of 2007, that number has quadrupled. Students seek out the field because of its possibilities for discovery, says Jonathan D. Cohen, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and codirector of Princeton’s two-year-old Neuroscience Institute. “In some ways, neuroscience is the last frontier,” he says. “It is the least explored and one of the most relevant to understanding ourselves and what defines us as distinct from other forms of life.”

Reaching that understanding requires links to quantitative disciplines like physics and contributions from other fields, which means that Princeton is a particularly good setting for neuroscience, adds Samuel S.-H. Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience faculty member. “One way in which Princeton is special is the ease with which we can cross those lines: both the size and spirit of the place favor collaboration and conversation,” he says.

Patricia S. Li ’08 is finding ties between neuroscience and her major, classics. “The early Greeks formed some of the first impressions of the body and mind and soul and how all three interconnected,” she says. “It seems very logical to connect the study of both classics and neuroscience.”

Eshel, the recipient of a 2007 Marshall Scholarship for graduate study in the United Kingdom, sees connections between neuroscience and other fields, too. He hopes to pair his interest in the brain with his interest in social policy through a career that involves public health. “There are not too many people who can speak the language of both fields, and I hope to,” he says.

A lot of other students are planning to become conversant in more than one discipline, too; this year, 13 majors—from religion to computer science—are represented in the neuroscience certificate program. What all the students share, however, was described succinctly by Adler J. Perotte ’04, who received a neuroscience certificate and a degree in psychology before heading off to Columbia University’s medical school. “I like,” he says, “to think about thought.”