My experience studying Neuroscience
Rachel shares her experience of studying Neuroscience
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"If we want to see the number of women pursuing these careers rise then we have to encourage girls to study physics, maths, applied maths and chemistry."
If you had told me five years ago that I would end up studying for a degree in Neuroscience, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I probably would have asked you what on earth Neuroscience is. Neuroscience is study of the brain and nervous system and encompasses a vast array of topics such as neurochemistry and molecular biology. We as neuroscientists are interested in the function of the nervous system, particularly how it affects learning and behaviour. Some might say that we’re a similar degree to psychology and while there is some overlap, psychology is specific to the mind and it’s behaviour as opposed to the function of the entire nervous system.
I majored in Neuroscience in UCD. When I was filling my CAO out I applied for the Biological, Biomedical and Biomolecular Sciences programme which is a branch of the UCD Science programme. I studied general biology in first year and was then streamlined into modules that focussed more on neuroscience in my second year. In third year, I studied pure Neuroscience which focussed on areas such as the development of the nervous system, pharmacology which is the study of drugs and their effects in both medical and recreational circumstances and biochemistry which focuses on cell signalling pathways such as the uptake of calcium for example.
In fourth year you spend 12 weeks in a laboratory carrying out a project which you write a thesis about. In my project, I focussed on prions which are the proteins that when misfolded cause diseases like Mad Cow Disease. There’s also a wide array of modules you can choose aside from these such as studying new therapies that are emerging for conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s Disease or Neuroimmunology which looks at the relationship between the nervous and the immune systems. These topics aren’t easy but they’re interesting and have a lot of real world applications.
So what will a degree in neuroscience get you in the job market? Well a degree in science is generally a good thing as you’ve been taught how to critically analyse scientific papers and facts. You’ve been taught to question the status quo and ask as many questions as you can. You’ve been taught to design your own experiments, interpret your own results and to write a thesis based around that. You’ll be a well-rounded candidate who can apply to graduate programmes in Pfizer, Glanbia, Kerrygold or Bord Bía to name but a few.
The communication skills that you’ll develop in this degree will be a great asset to you allowing you to work in science journalism, journalism in general or in other communications roles. You can pursue a career in scientific research by continuing your studies with a Masters or PhD. There are PhDs in neuroscience available all over the world; from Canada to Germany to Australia. You can also be like me and leave science behind to pursue a career in something else entirely but taking the skills you’ve developed to utilise in your new pursuit. In short, the opportunities are endless.
During my degree I’ve been continually asked what it’s like to be a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). While I have not struggled in my own degree, I would have liked to have more female lecturers and associate professors. Being a woman has not impeded my ability to succeed at what I want to do. However, I do get the impression that biology seems to be a female dominated area, at the undergraduate level at least.
My neuroscience class has about 30 people, 4 of whom are male. However, we see that the number of women in the higher positions in science like lecturers, professors etc. is much lower than men. For example in the UCD school of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, there’s 42 academic staff members. 16 of these are women which makes up 38% of the academic staff. That’s not to say that the women aren’t there it’s just they’re not being hired. It’s simply not good enough.
From a personal perspective, I would like to see schools encourage girls to pursue careers in the STEM subjects from a young age. Science is a hard career choice but it’s hard for both men and women. If we want to see the number of women pursuing these careers rise then we have to encourage girls to study physics, maths, applied maths and chemistry. My school let me study physics, chemistry and biology at the same time and I’m grateful for that opportunity. It’s time that that opportunity was rolled out to everyone, regardless of gender.