Sunday, November 10, 2013

Day 2 at #SfN13 The Graduate School Fair

SfN Day 2 - The Graduate School Fair: Uniformed Services University & the Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine

This year at #SfN13, the Society for Neuroscience is hosting the 2nd annual Graduate School Fair. I participated last year for our school, but was somewhat disappointed with the turnout of exhibitors. This year, the turnout is expected to be much larger as the number of graduate programs participating has increased. Students have a chance at this event to meet people face-to-face and to discuss their candid questions about the neuroscience graduate program that fits them best. As I am participating for the 2nd year in a row, I feel I would be remiss if I did not share what I thought was great about the neuroscience program I am in.

I am a Ph.D. candidate in the neuroscience program at the Uniformed Services University (USU) in Bethesda, MD. We are located in the greater Washington, D.C. area and it is quite the lively place for science and city-living. To quote the Maryland Biotechnology Center:

“Maryland is home to more than 500 core bioscience companies, representing approximately 8% of the U.S. industry. This is the 2nd largest cluster (per capita) in the U.S. and 4th overall in “core biotechnology” companies (Ernst and Young, 2006-2008).”

A cluster, or biocluster to be specific, is an area with a dense presence of academic, biotechnological, and pharmaceutical institutions engaged in life sciences research. As such, this makes the area one of the premier locations in the United States to be for the aspiring neuroscientist—or any scientist for that matter. Also, USU is located directly across the street from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I mention all of the details about our surrounding scientific environment because I cannot think of a scientific resource that is not available in our area.

As far as living in Washington, D.C. goes, I have to say, it took me some adjustment as I am a native Californian and, D.C. tends to be a little more fast-paced. After living in D.C. for over 4 years now, I have come to love it. On a personal note, I think the entertainment and food culture available in D.C. rivals cities anywhere. World famous chefs, including participants from the show Top Chef, and Iron Chef America have many restaurants in this area. Can you tell I’m obsessed with food? Well, let’s just say although I am very happy to see the Japanese and Mexican food presence growing in D.C. you can expect many a photo of sushi, teriyaki bowls, tacos, and tortas while I am back here in San Diego. For the more musically inclined, the 9:30 club—a D.C. music venue—is one of top music venues in the nation according to Billboard and one of the top selling venues according to the Baltimore Sun. And, with the National Mall containing world famous museums (that are for the most part free), you won’t run out of things to see or do when you move to D.C. But, the pressing issue is why would you choose our neuroscience program?

I believe the neuroscience program at USU (whose website can be found here) is quite unique. In many ways, it is very similar to a public university. Most of the PhD students in the neuroscience program are civilians (including myself), and we do not owe any kind of service to the military or government upon completion of our degree (a question I am very commonly asked). Our program coursework is interdisciplinary and the graduate program is part of the medical school. As such, we have the opportunity to take coursework in the medical school, as well as several departments across the university. Another excellent opportunity, due to our location, is that we can take extra courses for our education at night at FAES (NIH’s graduate school). During the beginning of the graduate program, students are required to rotate with three different professors before deciding upon their final lab in which they will conduct their dissertation research. In my opinion, this is excellent for newer models of graduate programs for variety of reasons: 1) this allows students to get a ‘taste’ of the different technical approaches to subdisciplines in their respective life science field, and 2) allows for students to obtain a diverse technical skillset while placing their feet in the water of a lab culture (metaphorically speaking). During this time, we are also required to take two years of coursework before we are conducting our dissertation research on a full-time basis. I also see our coursework requirements as an important aspect of our education at USU. Some graduate programs require very little, to no coursework, a year of coursework, or some time taking coursework in an ‘un-differentiated’ life science track. While there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to these approaches, I think two years of focused coursework from numerous departments that will benefit any neuroscientist-in-training is one of the best options. You never know what little fact you are exposed to that sparks your research. One of my favorite phrases is, “No knowledge is wasted knowledge.” Another is, “What if the cure for cancer was trapped inside the head of someone who could not afford an education?” But, I digress… slightly. That brings me to something else about our school that is a huge help during a Ph.D. program: we do not pay tuition. This is true for some life science Ph.D. programs but certainly not all. We are awarded upon admission, a highly competitive stipend that allows us to focus on our studies exclusively.

A Ph.D. is a research degree for the most part, so let’s talk about our research at USU. According to our 2012 annual report, The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked our university as #1 in the largest increase in obtaining federal research funding with an amazing 893.3% increase from 1999 to 2009. This is quite astounding, but you might want to know what we are doing with all of this money. Well, something that I believe makes our neuroscience program extremely unique is the Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine (CNRM). Congress established the CNRM as a comprehensive research program that directly facilitates collaborations between Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the NIH. The purpose of this collaboration is to tackle one of the most serious medical problems that our military personnel have experienced during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)-the problem of traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI has become the ‘signature’ injury of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, even in cases of so-called ‘mild-TBI’ we are unable to adequately diagnose and provide sufficient recourse for treatment. So little is known about what happens to the brain after trauma. This is, in part, due to the fact that TBI is not a single injury. There are many different causes of TBI and complicating this further is the age and sex of the patient. To address many of the issues in the medical care of TBI, the CNRM has a established a variety of core facilities. These cores approach a wide variety of components to the complex condition of TBI. For example, cores include the neuroprotection core which seeks to understand and learn how we can prevent the damage associated with the long-term disruption in cognitive function that is a hall-mark of the disorder. Neuroregeneration and neuroplasticity also are some of the cores contained within the CNRM and aim to address methods to directly repair damage induced by TBI and to restore the impaired neurological and cognitive functions of TBI patients utilizing neurobiological approaches. I invite anyone reading this post to take a look at the CNRM website to look at the other active programs contained within the Center, including TBI biomarkers and clinical studies.

As a USU neuroscience student, I was quite impressed how the faculty who have extremely broad research interests are all tackling the problem of TBI. Faculty with expertise in neurodevelopment, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, genetics, and many more areas all use their unique backgrounds to tackle one of the most complicated collection of disorders. This is great for prospective neuroscience students because most labs in the USU neuroscience program have projects in TBI but each faculty member also has projects which address research areas wildly different than TBI. Naturally then students have a wide variety of options for topics they can work on to suit their research interests. Further, something that you cannot say at most other universities is our dedication to protecting and treating the members of our military. One thing I did not anticipate when I became a student at USU was how I could participate in research that would not only directly benefit the general public, but also, our military personnel. This is extremely important to me as family members of mine have served in the United States Coast Guard, the United States Navy, and the United States Marine Corps. And this, has been an immense source of pride.

So, stop by our booth at the 2nd Annual Graduate School Fair at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. Myself, along with other students and faculty from our program, would be happy to tell you more about our institution and answer any questions you might have. We will be there from Noon until 2 PM on Sunday, November 10th and Monday, November 11th—Veteran's Day.


My views are my own and do not reflect the Uniformed Services University, the Department of Defense, or the Federal Government.