Quantitative Neurobiology of Behavior

With nearly 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections, the human brain is the last frontier in our pursuit of self-knowledge. Over the last century, traditional disciplines have generated foundational knowledge about phenomena occurring in the brain at different levels or scales, from molecules to cognitive processes. The challenge now is to provide the next generation of neuroscientists with the conceptual and practical skills needed to integrate this knowledge into coherent models that span these levels and provide mechanistic explanations for the observed data.

UVA has established a Brain Institute to study the question articulated by the NIH as to “how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.”  Developing and testing new models, such as analyzing gene expression in thousands of individual neurons in real time while observing complex behaviors, requires a foundation in computational and quantitative methods in order to analyze the massive datasets that new technologies are enabling us to collect.

Possible areas of study

Quantitative methods are best acquired via hands-on, research-based learning with exposure to a wide variety of approaches and perspectives to gain an appreciation for the integrative and interdisciplinary needs of the field.  The departments of Biology and Psychology are home to a number of neuroscience faculty who can collectively meet this training need. Many of us share a core interest in understanding the neural basis of behavior, one of the ultimate goals in brain research. These range from innate behaviors such as feeding, locomotion, fear and stress to sensory perception, learning, memory, decision-making and social interactions.

Mentoring Plan and Resources

Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellows will have coordinated access to the following resources and opportunities at UVA.

Supplemental Advising and Course Selection

Fellows will participate in a new team-taught course titled “Quantitative Neurobiology of Behavior: From Molecules to Mind” that will be offered by faculty in the research cluster.  This experience will not only introduce fellows to the full landscape of this cutting-edge field, but also establish a sense of community for the mentoring cluster.

Fellows will integrate at least one course on quantitative methods in neuroscience into their doctoral training, choosing among “Computational Neuroscience” (develops skills in processing neural data and implementing theoretical concepts with computer programs) and “Quantified Cognition” (which provides a foundation in mechanistic modeling and Bayesian approaches).

Teaching Experience

To prepare Fellows to mentor and teach future generations of neuroscientists, the curriculum will also include formal, hands-on training in effective teaching through an “Internship in Teaching Neuroscience” course.

Research Rotations and Mentorship

During their first year, Fellows will rotate through a total of three labs, with at least one rotation each in Biology and Psychology. After the first year, Fellows will choose a primary mentor in their home department as well as a secondary mentor who will provide a broader research perspective. Students will develop a research plan that draws mutually upon the expertise of both advisors’ labs.

Conference Travel

Fellows will receive financial support to attend national conferences to present their results, establish connections with related labs, and gain exposure to new methods and approaches.

Grant Writing

Fellows will receive training and mentoring to support their submission of proposals to national fellowship programs, including opportunities sponsored by the NSF and the NIH.  The faculty will also organize professional development workshops on writing and oral presentation.