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BMSA Podcast: Neuroscience

Interviewer: Varunaavee

Interviewee: Ellen Song

Varunaavee: Hello and welcome to the ITR session with BMSA, where we interview senior students in the medical sciences program to help you make your intent to register choices. My name is Varunaavee and today we’re joined by Ellen Song.

Ellen: Hi!

Varunaavee: Alright, so I guess we can start off with a little bit about yourself?

Ellen: Sure, I’m a third year neuroscience student and outside of academics, I’m the president of MusicBox Western, a club that gives free music lessons to vulnerable children in London, and I’m also a Residence Don.

Varunaavee: That’s awesome! Alright, so third year neuroscience, how’s your experience been in the module so far?

Ellen: Overall, pretty much just have good things to say about neuroscience. I’m really happy with the choice I made back in first year, so neuroscience is a pretty interdisciplinary field. So the neuro module has physiology, pharmacology, and psychology courses dulled into it. So what I love about neuroscience and what I think sets it apart from other med sci modules is that it gives physiology, pharmacology, and even the basic sciences like chem, bio, and physics a sort of context and an overarching purpose. So a simple example of this is that in cellular physiology last semester, we talked about sodium channel blockers, and what was cool was that I was able to connect that to what I learned about action potentials in neuroscience 2000. So cell phys taught me about sodium channel blockers, but then neuro taught me the basic cause of paralysis and why that would happen. So that’s just a very low level example but, my point is, my favourite part of the neuro module is being able to link what I’m learning in my phys and my pharm courses, to how it influences the human brain and the nervous system and eventually how it all influences human behaviour. And what’s also unique about the neuroscience module is that it starts in second year and not in third year like the other med sci modules. So you do have to make that ITR decision in first year instead of second year which can be kind of daunting.

Varunaavee: Yeah, that’s very true.

Ellen: Mhm. Yea, I was pretty stressed out about it but, yeah. So yea, second year neuroscience is pretty structured. We take psych stats and psych methods which are both full year, but they weren’t actually that bad. And we also took a full year introduction to neuroscience and a half year biochem and cell bio. So, I guess taking some courses with my med sci friends from first year, and others with psych students, and then my neuro course was mostly just students in my module. And we don’t have to take orgo which is good if chemistry isn’t your thing. So yeah, that's second year. And then, what I have found so far in third year is that we have much more freedom in the courses that we can take. So we only had 1.0 available for electives in second year but in third year we have 1.5 courses free for electives and then even within our required courses, we have a wide selection to choose from. So for my lab course we can choose between a wet lab, a communication sciences lab that focuses on programming with a mat lab or, an independent study with the psych department. And then we’re also required to take 1.0 third year psych courses but we’re given 20 different options for courses that range from more bio psych courses to cognitive psych courses to the social psych courses. So what’s nice is that you can customize your degree. So if you’re interested more in the biochemical bases of the brain, then you can take the wet lab and the biopsych courses. But if you’re more into cognitive neuroscience, then you can take a mat lab and the cognitive psych courses. We also take cell phys and human pharmacology as I mentioned, so like all together I feel like third year gives us a comprehensive understanding of the brain and behaviour from many different perspectives. And then in fourth year we do a thesis which is exciting and like again, there’s a wide range of topics that you can study because neuro is so interdisciplinary. People have done projects with cognitive psych labs, and others have worked with profs in phys pharm or anatomy and cell bio. So the big takeaway is in neuroscience you have a lot of diverse options and you can take your degree in many different directions which is cool.

Varunaavee: That is really cool! I thought like you know- when you hear about the neuroscience module, I feel like it’s easy to think that it’s not as broad and that it’s very specific to only things related to neuroscience. But I mean neuroscience is a very broad field. So that’s so cool! And so I guess my next question is, what is it about your module that made you choose it initially in first year?

Ellen: Mhm, and yeah that’s another thing to emphasize again, with neuro you do have to choose and make the decision in first year. If you want to pursue it and then if you end up, yeah- you can’t really not choose it on your ITR in first year and then go back to it in second year and join science later. It’s something that you have to make a decision about in first year. So that was pretty daunting but I knew that I was interested in physiology and pharmacology, but then I also knew that I was interested in the brain and human behaviour. So after looking at the courses in each module and talking to upper year neuro students, I knew that neuro would be the best fit for me because it combined all of my interests (which I think should be anyone's biggest priority when you’re choosing a module). Yeah I think that’s the first thing you should really consider. I think a lot of fields of study try to understand human behaviour like psychology, sociology, and philosophy. When it comes down to it they all try to figure out why people are the way they are and neuroscience just takes the biological approach to answering that question which I found cool back in first year, and, luckily I still find it cool now that I’m in third year. Yeah that’s how I made the decision back in first year.

Varunaavee: Yeah, no that’s awesome, and it is hard to kind of make that choice in first year so early on in undergrad. Is there anything that you wish you knew before choosing your module?

Ellen: To be honest, neuro has been pretty smooth sailing.

Varunaavee: That’s good!

Ellen: Yeah! And I’m really enjoying it so that’s kind of a hard question to answer. Like say, maybe I wish I knew how important it would be to nail down my academic writing skills. So, yeah- because compared to the other med sci modules, neuro is actually pretty writing heavy. So, in second year we write two papers for psych methods whereas for bio methods you only write one and it’s quite a bit shorter. And in third year a lot of our psych courses have large essay components and our neuro seminar course is an essay course. So yes, neuro does have quite a bit of writing and I’m grateful that it does because you know like it’s important to learn how to effectively communicate your ideas. Yeah and it’s important in any field and definitely in science so I don’t really want it to be a deterrent to anyone but really do make sure that you’re solid in your academic writing abilities.

Varunaavee: Yeah, no that’s a really good tip, I wouldn’t have thought that. Thank you so much for sharing, that was a lot of good information! I have one last question, do you have any final words for first year students listening, maybe a little bit confused about whether or not they should go for neuroscience?

Ellen: I just want to say it’s not that deep. I know that choosing your module might feel like the biggest decision ever right now because I definitely felt the same way. I’m sure you felt the same way too like last year and you’re trying to figure out what module to choose. I was so stressed out about my ITR like months before the deadline. So yes, I get it, it’s very stressful but, your module will not dictate your entire university experience, or your career, or your success in life. So you want to be a pharmacist, you don’t necessarily have to choose pharmacology, and if you want to be a doctor, you don’t necessarily have to choose physiology. And then on the flip side, if you do choose pharmacology or physiology, it doesn’t mean that pharmacy or medicine are your only options. There’s so yeah- like there’s so many different ways to get to where you want to be. So like let’s say you’re interested in the brain but you don’t end up getting into neuro, or you don’t like the look of the psych courses that are part of the module here at Western. That doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to study the brain in undergrad. You can still learn the neuroscience in other modules like phys or pharm because those overlap a decent amount with neuro and then even if you end up in say like MicroImm, I’m sure you can do a project on a virus that specifically affects the brain or end up in bio chem and cancer bio, you’ll probably learn about brain cancer at some point. And then in fourth year you can do your thesis on it so you’ll always be able to find ways to study what you like and get to where you want to be post grad. And that’s not to say that you don’t have to put thought into your decision and I would encourage you to look through the academic calendar, look through all the courses in each module and see if they interest you. Talk to upper year students about their experiences in different modules but, whatever module you’ll end up in, you’ll be fine and you’ll be able to shape it to your own interests and goals. So I was lucky enough to get into neuro and it felt like the right fit for me so far, so if it sounds like the right program for you too, I’d encourage you to apply you know- it’s a great program. It’s tight-knit with smaller size classes starting in second year and Western is very much known for our neuroscience research at our Brain and Mind Institute. So if you do choose neuro, then great, you’ve made a good decision but if it doesn’t seem like your thing, that’s okay too! And like all the other modules just as high caliber and you know- like meaningful in their own right. So yes- like bottom line is, it’s not that deep, you’ll be okay. Whatever you choose and if you pursue what you’re interested in, you’ll end up making the right choice.

Varunaavee: That’s good advice! I like that! I think that’s it for today, again thank you so much for speaking about your experiences Ellen, I’m sure it was helpful for any first year students listening. This was BMSA’s ITR session for the neuroscience module. Check back on our website and social media platforms for ITR podcasts for other modules with new students next week. Thank you for listening, and we hope this has been helpful!

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