How to Survive Neuroscience at Brown

Scroll down to read about student perspectives on choosing the right concentration, studying for difficult classes, and getting involved in research. 

An Overview

From organic chemistry and physics to neural systems and seminars dedicated to primary literature articles, the concentration can seem pretty daunting. Good thing we're here to help guide the way, giving some perspective on how we got through these seemingly nightmarish classes! Just kidding – given the right tools and attitude, these courses are actually absolutely fascinating.


We have below a bunch of personal anecdotes about how to succeed in neuroscience (study strategies, how to approach HW and problem sets, etc.). Scroll down to learn more!

Why Did I Choose Neuro?

There are some pretty similar concentrations at Brown: neuroscience (NEUR), neurobiology (BIOL), cognitive neuroscience (CLPS), and so on. So how did I end up in this concentration, writing for this page? Glad you asked! We’ve got some personal accounts here for you to check out, with a few more on the way.  Thanks for your patience!

“How can a curious mind not be fascinated by brain? I loved taking AP biology and psychology in high school and became curious to learn more about the overlap between the two fields. It made me realize I wanted to study the brain, the focus of psychology, from the scientific perspective of biology. What drew me to neuroscience at first is what fascinates many: the question of how cells make up memories, emotions, intelligence, personality. As I started taking more courses at Brown I became more interested in how different types of neurons interact to form circuits and how these circuits function. What determines when and how neurons fire – and how this can go wrong in disease – is now my main area of interest in this fascinating field.”

Tina Voelcker, Class of 2015
<bettina_voelcker@brown.edu>

“Neurons mix with neurotransmitters to relay information. These tiny bundles of cells dictate everything that we experience, everything we think and feel. I soon realized that the human mind is the greatest puzzle I could possibly solve. Billions of connections constantly shift their respective ‘weights’ to create an experience of the world around us. I want to tease apart those connections, find out why things go wrong and how to restore their function in diseased patients. I am going to study the brain as a PhD to work towards curing Alzheimer’s disease, and Brown’s Neuro department is giving me the groundwork upon which I’ll build my future research.”

Dustin Hayden, Class of 2015
<dustin_hayden@brown.edu>

“I chose neuro because I think it is the concentration that gives the greatest breadth of the brain sciences. The requirements give you a solid scientific foundation, the lecture courses expose you to a wide range of subjects within the brain sciences, and then you have the freedom to explore the ones you like more specifically with the rest of the requirements. The concentration advisors are also flexible and enthusiastic. For example, my advisor is allowing my lab work to satisfy my critical reading requirement since I read papers there weekly.”

James Giarraputo, Class of 2015
<james_giarraputo@brown.edu>

A few words about Cognitive Neuroscience at Brown:

What's the difference between neuro and cog-neuro in subject matter? Cognitive science is the science of the mind: the study of the cognitive processes that we learned without being taught, that we use without realizing, and that, arguably, make us human. Cognition is an umbrella term for processes like perception, language, memory, and reasoning, with all their fallacies and heuristics. Neuroscience is the science of the nervous system, its structure and its function. This includes the organization of the brain and spinal cord, but also the way that neurons communicate with each other and with the rest of the body. Cognitive neuroscience sounds like a compromise, or an overlap, but it's more of a summation. The field encompasses both anatomical pathways (basilar membrane to auditory cortex) and conceptual ones (sound perception to word recognition), and focuses a lot on what does what (correlating certain brain areas with certain functions).

What's the difference in concentration requirements? The cogneuro requirements can be found on CLPS departmental site [a link can be found on the homepage]. No chemistry or physics! What you will find is a wide variety of elective options, especially since the cognitive science, linguistics, and psychology departments merged a few years back. The cogneuro concentration requires two lab courses, while the neuro concentration requires only one.

Why didn't I choose neuro? I really wanted to study the whole big picture: both how our brain turns light into images, and how our mind turns images into recognizable objects. I loved the science of neural circuitry and the philosophy of consciousness. I was particularly interested in childhood development and language acquisition, and the huge variety of courses in the CLPS department facilitated that kind of study.”

Stephanie Tin, Class of 2013
<stephanie_tin@alumni.brown.edu>

My Experiences in Lab

Many concentrators participate in real academic research! Students can either reach out to clinicians at one of several hospitals in the area to engage in translational research, or they can work in a wet lab on or off campus. Students can even use their summer research internships to develop a thesis project!  

Check out some of the personal stories below to learn about how concentrators got involved in their labs and what they’ve learned from their experiences in academic research. 

“If you are set on being a neuroscience concentrator, I think it is useful to get into a lab as early as possible! There is so much to learn, and eight semesters really isn’t a ton of time. Try to identify early what you like, and e-mail as many professors as you can who study that subject. Also know that you are not locked into one lab for your whole time at Brown. I started working in a CLPS [Cognitive, Linguistic, & Psychological Sciences] lab my freshman year, however my interests became a bit more specific and my junior year I transferred labs. I now work at the Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk. It is a research center that partners with Women and Infants Hospital, and mainly studies early brain development. Everyone there is super friendly, and I plan on doing my senior thesis there.”

James Giarraputo, Class of 2015
<james_giarraputo@brown.edu>

“In the spring of my freshman year, I searched Brown’s research directory for labs working on neuroscience projects. I was particularly interested in the research done by Prof. Zervas, so I sent him a few emails that showed I had read his publications and was genuinely interested in his work. He replied to the third email inviting me for an interview, by the end of which he said I was welcome to start attending lab meetings. I started by observing and learning techniques – soon I had a little project that resulted in me being a co-author in a publication. My second project started in the summer after freshman year and continued as independent study through sophomore year. The results were fortunately very relevant and the grad student mentoring me  included them in the paper she was finalizing. My last project involved more independence and, as a consequence, more work, reading and careful planning. Although all of my experiences in lab demanded hard work of my part, they were all extremely rewarding. Engaging in research with brilliant scientists is an opportunity every Brown undergraduate has – make the most out of it!”

Tina Voelcker, Class of 2015
<bettina_voelcker@brown.edu>

“There are many reasons to get involved with neuroscience research at Brown. Of course, a few years of laboratory research, poster presentation experience, and perhaps even your name on a publication make for a more competitive graduate or medical school application. However, I don’t believe this is why working as an undergrad in a neuro lab is most valuable. Instead, I think the value of performing undergraduate research lies in the opportunities to explore your interest in neuroscience outside of the classroom; to integrate, apply, and extend your knowledge of neuroscience in an important, interesting, and self-directed manner; and to become a member of the summer research community in Providence.  

I started working in the lab of Dr. Kevin Bath during the spring semester of my first year at Brown. At this point, I had taken only one neuro class and never performed lab research (so if you are worried about approaching a professor, don’t be. By and large, professors are extremely receptive to undergrads working in their lab). Nonetheless, the description that I read of Dr. Bath’s research (which concerns the effects on emotional and behavioral development of early life exposure to stress and neuroleptic drugs) fascinated me. Working in the lab compounded my interest in neuroscience and pushed me toward concentrating in it before I had taken any courses beyond NEUR0010. Moreover, my research with Dr. Bath opened the door for me to work on a clinical study run by one of his collaborators at the Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk.  

Another reason why I would encourage you to do undergrad neuro research is the incredible complement it provides to classroom learning. I have sometimes felt as though, for my courses, I was memorizing a lot of facts about receptors or mechanisms of drug action or neural circuit anatomy without really understanding how they all fit together. Through my research, I have been able to fit these seemingly disparate bits of knowledge together into a better understanding of neuroscience: a complete picture instead of assorted puzzle pieces.  

Finally, doing research at Brown makes staying in Providence over the summer (through an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award, working as a paid laboratory assistant, or other options; see the Concentration Requirements page for more details) much easier. I received an UTRA to stay and do research the summer after my first year at Brown. I enjoyed the experience of living in Providence during the summer so much that I stayed on College Hill both subsequent summers.”

Ezra Litchman, Class of 2015
<ezra.lichtman@gmail.com>

“I was fortunate enough to work for Dr. Daniel Dickstein at the PediMIND Program at Bradley Hospital (East Providence). Based out of the adolescent psychiatric hospital, Dr. Dickstein's team works on the search for biomarkers of numerous psychiatric disorders like ADHD and Bipolar Disorder. The summer of 2013, I received an UTRA to look at the Intersections of Obesity, Psychopathology, and Cognitive Function. This past academic year, I continued working with the lab, and ultimately completed a thesis project on the Emotional Face Processing of Bipolar Young Adults. I was given access to fMRI data collected over the past few years, and taught how to prepare and analyze behavioral and imaging data.
 
Independent research has been an incredibly unique and rewarding experience for me - one that I highly recommend. I knew long ago that bench research did not interest me, and clinical research has proven to be a great alternative. Over the course of my time with PediMIND I learned a great deal about clinical psychiatry, shadowed doctors, and completed two research projects. It has helped inform my decision to pursue a medical degree after graduation from Brown. We are incredibly fortunate to attend a University filled with opportunities for independent research, and I encourage all new concentrators not to let this slip by!”

Nina Fleischer, Class of 2014
<christina_fleischer@brown.edu> 

NEUR 1 (Intro to Neuro)

How did I survive The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience?

“Part of what makes Neuro 1 such an awesome class is that it introduces you to a ton of really interesting and fundamental neuroscience all in one course. Unfortunately, this can make it stressful because the course covers a lot of material very quickly. My tip for success would be to keep up with the reading, and don't let it slide after each exam. It has a way of piling up, and that makes it tempting to cut corners. Instead try to make the readings a part of your routine, and consider it your homework for the class since there aren't problem sets. When studying for exams, I highly recommend drawing out systems and material by hand. I often found it helpful to use a white board and reteach myself or friends the material. I think the best way to prove to yourself that you know the material well is to be able to explain it to someone else.”

Jill Pandiscio, Class of 2014
<jill_pandiscio@brown.edu>

“Although NEUR0010 does require some conceptual understanding of the material, it is mostly memorization-heavy. The grade you get in the course will be strongly reflective of how much time you spent studying and understanding the material. There will be times when you will have to memorize pure facts, and there will be other times when you will have to understand how a particular process works. Either way, your effort will largely determine your grade.   

Probably the most important tip for surviving the course is to stay on top of the material. There’s a good chance that most of the material will be new to you, so it’s crucial that you don’t fall behind. Reviewing the lecture notes every week is a great way to keep on top of the information. Also, the professors post a ton of practice exams from previous years, so it is also a good idea to do as many practice problems as you can each week. In terms of reading the textbook, my personal opinion is that you should read it but know what information is important and what is likely extraneous. A great majority of the test questions come out of lecture, so it’s not particularly essential for you to memorize every detail in the textbook. With that said, however, the textbook is very well-written and engaging, and it will help to clarify some points that might have been confusing in lecture. You should also attend section because the large class size makes it impractical to address everyone’s confusion.   

During the course, you will be exposed to several pathways and processes (for example, how painful information gets sent up to the brain from the body). To learn this type of information, I strongly suggest that you draw the pathway multiple times until you can do it flawlessly. It’s also important to think about how you can potentially mess up a pathway. For instance, if you cut a certain section of the spinal cord, how would that mess with pain processing? For these pathways and processes, you would need to master both a factual and conceptual understanding of the material. Once you get it down, though, you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment.   

The last tip I have for success in NEUR0010 is that you should be able to teach the material back to a friend, a TA, or a tutor. As a TA for the course, I’ve found that I had such a better understanding of the material when I realized it was my responsibility to teach the material to the students. When you’re studying for the course, imagine you were a TA and had to teach the material to your students. Alternatively, make a friend in the course and take turns teaching each other and asking each other questions. The sense of obligation and responsibility will push you to understand the material to the fullest.”

Ronnie Li, Class of 2015
<yifan_li@brown.edu>

NEUR 102 (Neurobiology)

How did I survive Principles of Neurobiolgy?

”This class gives you the foundations you'll need for any advanced neurobiology class you take as a junior or senior (for example, Diseased Brain, Structure of the Nervous System, Learning and Memory, etc.) so while it can be tedious, the material is really important. It can be hard to stay alert during class because it's at 9 a.m. but what helped me was printing out the lecture slides beforehand (2-4 slides/page) and taking notes right on the slides. It'll help you stay focused and give you a great, slide-by-slide study guide for exams. In general, the exam questions come straight from the slides so the lectures and the paper assignments are the only resources you will need to do great!”

Deepa Chellappa, Class of 2014
<deepa_chellappa@brown.edu>

“This class covers a lot of the fundamental concepts and material you will see over and over again in other biology and neuroscience courses. The exams are based directly off the lecture slides, so a beginning-to-end run-through with a study group is a very effective method of learning. Another great resource not found in other courses is the online wiki notes, which have been compiled by generations of TAs over the years. These provide both comprehensive and high yield information in regards to everything you will need to know if you prefer self-study. The TAs themselves hold section reviewing the key points of lecture, and are very friendly. Lastly, coffee makes everything better at 9am.”

Elbert Heng, Class of 2014
<elbert_heng@brown.edu>

NEUR 103 (Neural Systems)

How did I survive Neural Systems?

“I recommend doing the reading before lecture. I made review sheets for each chapter and it was really helpful. Also, make sure to understand how to apply the concepts. It's not just a recall-facts exam. Lastly, office hours with Monica [Dr. Linden, or ‘Dr. M,’ the course’s professor] are beneficial. If you work hard you will do great in this class!”

Michelle Shnayder, Class of 2014
<michelle_shnayder@brown.edu>

“Dr. M is an outstanding professor in large part due to the tremendous care she takes to emphasize concepts rather than rote memorization. This makes the class more challenging, but also more rewarding in many aspects. The class has begun to get the reputation of being one of the hardest courses in the neuro department, and rightly deserved; you can expect far lower averages on her exam than you might have seen in other neuro classes. It would be a bad idea to pair this class with 3 or even 2 other intense science courses given the sheer difficulty of the content.

First, attending class is absolutely crucial to success; Dr. M keeps the information on her slides sparse then enumerates in lecture. Try to bring some caffeine to class each day and use it if you need it to help stay awake. Next, Dr. M will generally test on concepts she spends a long time explaining in class, so make sure to make special notes of these. The readings are well-represented in the exams, and should be well understood (Dr. M would be more than happy to clarify about anything in her office hours, and she is incredibly nice about helping out as professors go). The quintessential Dr. M question involves taking a concept about a neural system that you have learned about (such as human olfaction) and then applying that to a different organism (how do dogs smell, how is that similar to humans and how is that different, and what important neural principles are shared). She will always give you what information you need to answer each question, but the onus will be on you to make sure that you are well versed in the concepts enough to answer in short answer format (which comprises most of her tests). Try to take advantage of the TA led sections to learn about how best to comprehend and explain each neural concept, for success with the exams and your own love of the intricate systems governing our senses. 

Overall, as is always the case, the more time you can devote to the first exam (which is generally one of the harder exams), the better off you will be. It is always easier to start a course with a solid win, and Neural Systems is no exception!” 

Ike Lopez, Class of 2014
<isaac_lopez@brown.edu>

“To survive Neural Systems, we found strength in numbers, specifically the number 3. We considered ourselves the Three Musketeers of Neural Systems, lassoing difficult concepts and bringing them closer for further investigation, only releasing them when we were certain each of us had mastered the material. Neural Systems is unique amongst the neuro survey classes because it relies least on memorization and most on conceptual understanding. However, there are many concepts spanning the entirety of the brain's functions, so repetition is key. 

Our study system was simple: a week before the test, we would begin simultaneous individual and group studying. While our individual study systems varied, we all found the course reader to be incredibly helpful as a supplement to class notes. Once we had reviewed a certain number of chapters, we would meet to go over vocabulary, concepts, diagrams, and questions. Our group sessions were both efficient and fun--we would liven up long study sessions with puns and food, but the interesting nature of the material allowed us to stay focused.” 

Ananya Bhatia-Lin, Abbey Perreault, & Ria Vaidya, Class of 2016
<ananya_bhatia-lin@brown.edu>
<abigail_perreault@brown.edu>
<ria_vaidya@brown.edu>

“NEUR 1030 is a challenging course, but with hard-work and dedication to learning, it will also be an extremely rewarding and educational experience. For me, Neural Systems remains the single most interesting, informative, and applicable neuroscience class I took at Brown. I liked the class so much that I TA'ed for two years. What makes this course a challenge for students is that it is highly concept-driven and doing well requires understanding these concepts as a holistic whole, not as discretized, disparate collections of facts. This class asks students to think critical, to think analytically, and to integration and apply these concepts. Learning to think at the level this class requires simply takes practice. As long as you give yourself ample exposure to conceptual thinking while you study, you will succeed in this course. Here are some ways to gain this exposure:

1. Go to every class.

2. Go to TA recitations.

3. Read the course reader. More than once.

4. When reviewing lecture slides, ask yourself what is the key conceptual point on every slide. Be able to explain that point and explain how it connects to other concepts both in the chapter in the course as a whole.

5. Take the practice exams without looking at the answer keys until you've finished. If you get something wrong, go back to the slides/course reader to understand why you got it wrong.

6. There is no substitute for hard work. Much of success not just in this course, but in all college courses comes from understanding how you learn best. Put time and effort into finding the study strategies that work for you. This understanding of yourself will stay with you and continue to pay dividends to your achievement long after this course ends.”

Maxwell Sherman, Class of 2014
Applied Math-Biology Concentrator
<maxwell_sherman@brown.edu>

CHEM 33

How did I survive Rate, Structure & Equilibrium?

Why:  CHEM0330 is required for Bio, Chem, Neuro, and premed tracks. 

Who: Take it with Stratt. He’s a great lecturer, he gives the top third As, and he looks like he was born in a suit. Stratt will challenge you to conceptually understand the equations you apply, and will force you to work through the logistics as well as the numbers of each problem. His exams are slightly harder than other professors, but his emphasis on conceptual understanding will better prepare you for future classes.

When: Try to take this class your freshman year, it’s not too work-intensive and can help smooth the transition into college-level rigor. The material serves as a natural follow up to most AP or honors HS chemistry curriculums, so it is best to take while high school chem is fresh in your mind.

Homework: The best resources to help with homework are the sample problems included in the textbook. The book shows you how to solve the types of problems seen in problem sets, in a series of logical steps. Because the HW problems are typically very similar to the in-text samples, the book’s step-by-step problem solving techniques are very easy to apply. The next best resource is friends in the class. There are likely several people on your freshman hall also taking CHEM0330. It helps to work through the concepts in a group, and checking answers with friends ensures your correctness. You will learn the most from the homework if you attempt all the problems on your own before going over the solutions with friends.

Exams: Exams always include variations of homework problems. If you understand exactly how to solve every type of problem from every homework assignment, the exams will be easy.  You can also expect concept-driven exam questions that ask you to predict free energy, enthalpy, and entropy changes associated with various chemical processes. Group study will help you practice justifying your answers.

Lab: CHEM0330 labs can feel tedious and often demand high levels of precision. Make sure you’re awake an energetic when you go into lab because they require sustained attention. Pre-lab quizzes are designed to help your grade, so if you have read the lab manual ahead of time they should be easy. Lab write-ups can often feel like busy work, and therefore are highly prone to careless mistakes. I suggest working on these with a partner to help prevent silliness.”

Jamie Fried, Class of 2014
<jamie_fried@brown.edu>

CHEM 35

How did I survive Organic Chemistry?

“CHEM 35 is arguably the most storied of all the required courses that pre-meds and neuroscience concentrators take. It comes with a ton of hype, and because so many people take it at once, there's always a bit of an ‘orgo culture’ that exists on Brown's campus, for better or worse. I took CHEM 35 and 36 successively, and subsequently became an orgo TA, so I'm familiar with the classes and the culture.  

First and foremost, I'll say that the class covers a lot of material, and this can obviously be quite daunting for students. I think it's really important to note, though, that you shouldn't enter orgo with a mentality of ‘this is going to be a really difficult class and I'm going to suffer through it.’ A lot of kids make this mistake, and when they first run into trouble in the class, they shut down and convince themselves that they just aren't going to get it. This a tremendously dangerous path to take, because class content builds on itself; in other words, failing to understand Chapter 3 can and will negatively impact your understanding of Chapter 10, or even your ability to do well in CHEM 36. If you enter with a mentality of ‘this is going to be tough but the material can be interesting and rewarding,’ then you've already put yourself in a better position than many of your peers.

Was the class tough? Absolutely. I struggled with certain aspects of the class, just like any other student. Did I enjoy the class and find it interesting, though? Absolutely. Ultimately, succeeding in orgo comes down to putting in the necessary time. As obvious as that sounds, a lot of kids simply don't stay on top of the material and leave the studying to the weeks before an exam. This is frankly a terrible idea. You should look to be going to problem sessions every week, and attending group tutoring sessions as well, if possible.

On that note, I should mention that, despite the fact that orgo can be hard, Brown has a pretty nice system in place for helping students understand the material. The undergraduate TA problem session system is brilliant and is extremely important for succeeding in the class. It was a really nice experience for me to get to know my TAs, and I'm good friends with some of them now, too. The TAs tend to be really nice and helpful people, so you should absolutely look to get to know them and benefit from them.

A few final points: Orgo lab can be pretty tedious and time-consuming. Unfortunately, this is just a reality of the class, but some of the experiments we do in orgo labs are really interesting, so that does provide some relief. It'll make your life a lot easier early on in lab if you understand from the get-go what the expectations are for a lab report, such that you avoid getting docked for silly things. Also, find a good study group. It is incredibly useful to study with other serious students and learn from them how they approach problems differently from you.  

If you put in the necessary time and allow yourself to actually enjoy the material (it can honestly be pretty interesting and fun), orgo ends up being manageable. Just don't buy into all the negative hype.” 

Abid Haseeb, Class of 2016
< abid_haseeb@brown.edu>

PHYS 30/40 (Mech + E&M)

How did I survive the Physics 30/40 Track?

“Use YouTube and Google! The people teaching these courses are absolute geniuses, however sometimes they have trouble putting a concept into terms that are easily understood for students with little physics background. That being said, there are a TON of great resources on the web. Use those resources, and then do as many practice problems as humanly possible.”

James Giarraputo, Class of 2015
<james_giarraputo@brown.edu>

“Physics 0030 and 0040 are introductions to basic physical principles. Whereas 30 focuses on Newtonian motion, gravity, and various other things likely covered in a high school physics class, 40 ventures into the wonderful world of electricity and magnetism. These classes are not easy but are by no means impossible.  I would even say the material is pretty interesting, making studying all the more enjoyable.

To ensure you do your best, I recommend a few things. First, the books for these classes are stellar and should be used at all times to supplement lectures. Skim them before class to gain an idea of what’s going to happen and read it after class to solidify what you just learned. Second, there are weekly homework help sections available via the Science Center [3rd floor of the SciLi]. Sign up for one and go to them consistently; they offer a good chance to review concepts. Third, find a group of people to do the homework with. Instead of scratching your head over a particular problem, talk about it with someone. Fourth, if a lot of the homework questions are tough, don’t think you’re falling behind. A lot of 30 and 40 is just knowing how to solve a few problems. Even if you never got more than 20% of the homework questions right without help (basically my experience), you can and will get an A if you understand later how to correctly solve the problem (again, my experience). Fifth, to study, do all the homework problems. Then do them again. Then again. Do them until you are practically able to solve them without even thinking about it because they’ve become so familiar. Once that happens, slowly go back through every problem and understand how you go through the steps of solving it. This is the exact process I did, totaling to about 20-30 hours of studying in the week before the midterm, and by the time I got to the exam I was so familiar with almost every problem that nothing caught me off-guard.”

Dustin Hayden, Class of 2015
<dustin_hayden@brown.edu>

PHYS 50/60 (Mech + E&M)

How did I survive the Physics 50/60 Track?

“If you can tolerate having class at 8:30AM and enjoy having a little calculus in your life, the PHYS0050/60 track can be a good alternative to the standard track. Professor Dorca is an organized and relatively engaging lecturer, and is invested in his students' success, so he's straightforward and reasonable. Highlights of 50/60 include Dorca's epic color-coded chalkboard notes and the occasional mind-blowing proof or demo. Exams closely resemble the homework problem sets, which draw heavily from the textbook, so studying the book problems is key to success. In lab, you work with a partner to adapt one of several possible experimental designs for each two-week unit--choose your partner wisely because you'll be buddies for the whole semester!”

Bryn Bliska, Class of 2014
<bryn_bliska@brown.edu>