Neuroscience: Student Testimonials

Annabel Fan

Specialist:  Neuroscience Co-op

What factors contributed to you choosing your program(s)?

I chose this program because I knew I wanted to study neuroscience specifically, as I’ve always had an interest in the human brain and a strong background in biology, chemistry and physics. UTSC was one of the few schools that offered direct entry into a neuroscience program that also had co-op. I felt that choosing a highly specific program would be beneficial even if I decided to pursue a different field later on. This is because the program starts with more general science courses allowing me to get a feel for other programs, it is also academically challenging so that I would take many of the more difficult courses that would be needed in case I wanted to specialize in something else. In addition, I thought it would be easier to choose a program with limited space to start with, rather than wait to get in after deciding that I wanted to go into it after all.

Can you describe your program(s)? What is it actually like?

As mentioned earlier, the program starts off with general science courses, if you are in the specialist co-op program you’ll also be expected to take physics and calculus. In second year, the neuroscience specific courses begin and in the upper years there will be many opportunities to do hands on research in different laboratory courses. Although the program is highly specialized, there is still a lot of leeway to take elective courses. One of the best components of the program is the opportunity to gain experience in the field through two co-op terms, which for students in the sciences is often combined into one 8-month co-op.
 
What tips/advice can you provide to students just starting or considering this program(s)?
 
Be sure that this is what you want to study. If you aren’t very enthusiastic about the program to begin with it may be beneficial to start off with a more generalized program, I say this because some of my peers decided to pursue another field after their second or third year in neuroscience and had to take heavier course loads to catch up and graduate on time. That said, you will be choosing your subject post at the end of your first year so there will be plenty of time to figure things out and talk to academic advising or other UofT staff if you aren’t sure what you want to pursue. Don’t be intimidated by the more difficult courses. If you aren’t sure your previous experience will be enough to keep up in a course, ask some students that have taken it before about what it’s like (you can search the course code on Facebook to find past student study groups), or talk to the professor early on in the semester to make sure you’re prepared. There are plenty of study aids available to you, so take advantage of them. Besides study aids there are many resources on campus, be that Health and Wellness, the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre or the library Makerspace. Take some time first year to get to know the campus, go visit the Doris McCarthy Gallery (DMG), or the Hub, many services on campus are paid by your tuition so you should try to take advantage of them. Participating in welcome events and tours will help you get acquainted with these resources and many of your professors will likely point you towards them as well.

What will you do with your degree after graduation? (Future plans?)

After graduation, many students in this program will go into the medical field, or pursue graduate studies. Applying for professional schools and completing the appropriate testing (GRE, MCAT) is time consuming and should be treated like a course itself in terms of time management. As I have a heavy course load in my last year, I’ve decided to concentrate on my studies and will be taking a year off afterwards to apply to a graduate program pursing research in visual perception. Many of my peers make use of the employment aid and career counselling services at UTSC which is available to alumni for two years after graduating. During this year off I also plan to intern at a small technological or game design company, to gain experience in business and technology which I plan to combine with my academic studies to develop virtual reality technologies.
 
What has your academic journey during your time been like as you progress toward graduation?

The first academic year in this program consists of the general sciences courses, I opted to take physics and calculus as well as they are first year courses however if you are less confident in these topics you can take them later on. Second year consists mainly of the more specific biology courses and your first neuroscience course NROB60 in which students dissect a sheep brain to learn the basics of neuroanatomy. If you are in the co-op program, you will also take the course COPD01 which will prepare you to begin your work search. It is also common to take a full course load in the summer if you would like to complete your degree in 4 years instead of the 5 years that the co-op program usually is. In my third year, I completed my 8-month co-op work term at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health as a research assistant in translational clinical studies. My fourth year consisted of a lighter course load than I expected due to difficulties the program has faced in the past with scheduling, however I believe this is meant to be revamped in the upcoming year. To prepare for the workload in my last year, I made a point to audit (sit in unofficially) for three additional courses. (Please note that permission is required to audit a class.) I would suggest sitting in on courses you will need to take in the future to get a head start, or audit a course that interests you but you don’t have the prerequisites to take officially. During the summer I took my biochemistry courses and data analysis and started a work-study position at the DMG. My current final year consists of C and D level psychology and neuroscience courses, a thesis course which gives me hands on experience in research, and many electives to reach the 20.0 credit degree requirement needed to graduate. There is a larger elective allowance than one would expect, so use them wisely to lighten up your course load across the years.

Swara Shah

Majors: Human Biology & Neuroscience

What factors contributed to you choosing your program(s)?

I entered UTSC with a passion for studying the human body, however little did I know that UTSC would have a vast variety of biology related programs for me to explore. After first year, I decided to do a double major as it would allow me to explore multiple science areas. The reason I chose Neuroscience and Human Biology is because both are related to the human body, one more holistic (Human Biology) over the other which is brain focused. I also realized that there is a lot of potential for opportunities in the future in the field of neuroscience because it is still relatively new with lots more to be discovered.

Can you describe your program(s)? What is it actually like?

The human biology and neuroscience programs are highly integrated yet still very different. Courses for human biology touch upon many different areas in biology such as anatomy, physiology, and integrative biology, whereas neuroscience courses are very interrelated and focused on different aspects of the nervous system and behavior. What I like about the neuroscience major instead of specialist is that the major gives me huge flexibility in terms of courses I can take. The neuroscience major program has allowed me to take some very interesting psychology courses that I would not have otherwise taken. These programs give me exposure to three divisions at once such as biology, neuroscience, and psychology hence giving me exposure to different professors, different teaching styles, and different opportunities throughout my education.

What tips/advice can you provide to students just starting or considering this program(s)?

1. Plan backwards. Once you decide which program you want to do, I would advise that you sit down one day and plan every single course you’re going to take for the remaining years. Planning it out backwards means picking 4th year courses and then working down to 2nd year. This makes the struggle of course selection much easier because it allows you to see which prerequisites / co-requisites you need for the courses you want to take. It also helps you graduate on time without missing any important courses. Furthermore, this is especially important to do for related majors such as Human Biology and Neuroscience because many courses can be used to fulfill both programs so you should be careful since you must take at least 12 distinct credits between the two majors to graduate.
2. Talk to professors. This is advice that you will forever be grateful for. Go to office hours, ask questions, and just get to know your professors. The more people you talk to, the more networks you develop, and networking is key for success in any program. The professors at UTSC are very helpful and welcoming thus you should never feel intimidated or nervous to approach them. They love visitors at office hours and they love to get to know their students! (This comes in handy when it’s time for those reference letters.)
3. Learn about the free services available to you. From healthcare to tutoring to interesting seminars, UTSC has it all. In my first year, I was quite oblivious to all the free services available to its students thus I advise you to learn about them and use them to their maximum potential as soon as possible. For example, there are many opportunities for strengthening your writing skills or math skills, there are biology/chemistry help sessions, wellness peer programs that provide helpful hints and events, and much more for students to explore.
 
What will you do with your degree after graduation? (Future plans?)

I have applied to medical school as my first choice and am currently considering graduate programs for Masters/Ph.D. in Medical Sciences. Being able to double major in Human Biology & Neuroscience gives me a broad spectrum of career options to choose from. I can consider research in biology or neuroscience or integrated research in both areas through many graduate programs.

What has your academic journey during your time been like as you progress toward graduation?

Every year matters in university, thus a strong start is the key to success later. As a first year in Sciences, mostly all students take the core sciences such as general biology/chemistry, as they are prerequisites for many upper year courses. These courses often review and build on the foundations developed through the senior level courses in high school. First year was also the time I used to get to know what types of clubs and opportunities are available on campus so that I could start early and build strong networks. In my second year, I had a pretty good idea in terms of which program I wanted to do hence my courses became slightly more focused towards those areas. During second year, I became certain about which study styles and techniques work the best for me. I also landed my first research assistant position in a lab and started to become more involved in extra-curricular activities. In the summer before third year, I did a lot of research about graduate programs and the related tests that I need to take such as the MCAT for medical school. I even took an MCAT prep course and took the exam later that summer. Once third year came around, courses became much smaller and participation based allowing for more opportunities to talk to professors and meet new people. During third year, I joined another lab to explore a different research area so that I could develop a broad range of skills. I also started to research more about which schools to apply to and the prerequisite courses needed for the graduate programs. Then fourth year comes with a lot of excitement but also with a lot more commitment and responsibilities because that is when applications begin which require reference letters and lots of writing. All four years are important and unique in there own ways because each year adds to the experience acquired from the previous years. The best advice I could give is to have an interest in what you do, get involved, and don’t be afraid to meet new people/professors!

Brian Longmire

Majors:  Neuroscience and Mental Health Studies

What factors contributed to you choosing your program(s)?

I have always had a passion for psychology, but I was intrigued by the neuroscience program at UTSC. I remember when I was 15, completing the Career Cruising assessment and being recommended for a career in psychology. I knew that I always wanted to have a career where I could help people, and studying psychology offered me that opportunity. I also have been deeply fascinated with the mind and how the workings of the brain give us our conscious experiences.
 
Can you describe your program(s)? What is it actually like?

My specific program combination has given me a diverse educational experience, which I am really thankful for. I'm afforded the opportunity to learn about the mind from a more technical and biological perspective through my neuroscience courses, while my psychology courses give me a broader, more holistic viewpoint in terms of how the mind operates and interacts with the environment. My first and second year courses were heavily focused on reading, which was daunting and overwhelming at times. However, my upper year courses were extremely interactive and engaging which allowed me the opportunity to really dive into the subjects in psychology and neuroscience that I'm most interested in (e.g., free will, consciousness, personality disorders, etc.)

What tips/advice can you provide to students just starting or considering this program(s)?

I would recommend that students interested in psychology and neuroscience take the time to get to know their professors, as well as the other students in their program. The psychology and neuroscience faculty at UTSC are absolutely phenomenal and many professors go out of their way to help students succeed and flourish. Moreover, students should take the opportunity to explore opportunities for learning in a variety of contexts, not just inside the lecture theatre. For example, there are many opportunities for students to get relevant practical experience through supervised study courses, thesis courses, volunteer positions within professor's labs, and community organizations. I would also recommend that students foster an understanding of what they find interesting within psychology and use that passion and interest to help orient them to the opportunities that are out there and worth pursuing. I also can't stress enough the importance of good time management skills. With all of the reading that you have to do for your psychology and neuroscience courses, things can get away from you if you don't get a handle on a way to effectively organize your time. Most of all, don't forget to have fun and enjoy your studies!

What will you do with your degree after graduation?

I'm currently in the process of applying to graduate school for programs in social work and counselling. Upon graduation, I aim to work in counselling settings with people from diverse backgrounds who are seeking treatment for mental health concerns. Specifically, I'm interested in working in suicide prevention and helping people who have been affected by suicide.

What has your academic journey during your time been like as you progress toward graduation?

It's been an interesting 4 years to say the least. In first year, I really concentrated on doing well academically. I believe that this year is integral to a positive overall university experience as it lays down the foundation for success in second through fourth year by equipping students with the skills they need to navigate through their courses and access the plethora of services at UTSC. In second year, I was interested in getting more involved on campus which I made sure to balance with my academic demands and I really enjoyed getting to know many more people on campus, both inside and outside of the classroom. In third year, I took some of my favorite courses at UTSC such as psychotherapy, drugs and the brain, and clinical neuropsychology. These classes were not only extremely interesting but engaging as well and they really helped me solidify what I want to do upon graduation. As I look towards graduation, I am really enjoying the thesis course I'm currently taking. It's allowed me to synthesize all of the skills I've learned throughout my undergraduate career while at the same time allowing me to really delve into a research area that I find fascinating!

Fareha Nishat

Majors: Neuroscience and Mental Health

What factors contributed to you choosing your program(s)?
 
I’ve always been interested in the brain and when looking into programs for university I realized that neuroscience wasn’t an option at many universities, and UTSC uniquely had a neuroscience program that had been active for many years. I choose this program because I wanted to have a strong foundation in neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and basics of brain for my future graduate studies. I was initially enrolled into the specialist neuroscience program but switched to a double major in neuroscience and mental health as I became more and more interested in the clinical side of brain disorders. One of the things that really pushed me towards doing a double major was being able to actively learn about the more biological aspects of the brain if my neuroscience classes while taking psychology courses which informed me of the more behavioural aspects of the brain.
 
Can you describe your program(s)? What is it actually like?
 
The neuroscience program at UTSC is quite rigorous, the content can get challenging but I think this allows students to decide if this area is really what they are interested in. This program has a heavy focus (especially in 3rd and 4th year courses) on how to read, analyze, critique scientific literature and present in a simple short way (be it in written form or verbally through presentation) which I really valued as it prepares you well for graduate school. Although there aren’t many course options in the neuroscience program, the ones offered cover a wide area of neuroscience which gave me a great understanding of the entire neuroscience field and allowed me to hone into what I liked, where the field currently is and how I saw myself fit into it. The mental health program at UTSC is the first of its kind in Canada; it gives you two options of focus either a psycho-social or psycho-biological grouping, which I found really helpful as it guided me in choosing what area of mental health I found particularly interesting and what courses to take for that interest. Even with the groupings there's still room to explore the plethora of psychology courses offered at UTSC, I especially honed into the developmental courses and this really ignited my passion and laid the foundation for my research interest in youth mental health.
 
What tips/advice can you provide to students just starting or considering this program(s)?
 
1. I think one of the important things to figure out for any student is how they best learn, not all of us learn by memorizing notes. In my case I’m a visual and auditory learner, so I would make tables, charts, networks (which comes in handy when memorizing neural networks) to study rather than just copying my lecture notes. I would also record myself summarizing topics which I would listen to over and over again until it almost became the voice in my head!
 
2. Find something you’re passion about, there’s probably a club for it and join it! School can become quite daunting at certain points and it's really important to have something that you can use as your release. A club, society or student group can help you with that as you can spend time with like-minded people and learn more about the world and yourself.
 
3. UofT has so many connections and as a student starting your academic career you should definitely make use of it, apply for everything that you find interesting because at least one of those will work out. If you’re not in the co-op don’t fret you can still get a lot of research experience from volunteering and work studies. I would suggest looking into the career learning network to find those opportunities that best align with your interest. One of the coolest things about going to UTSC is that you’re still connected to the entire UofT network so you don’t have to limit yourself to professors at UTSC, there is probably a researcher either at St. George, Mississauga or at one of the many hospitals that UofT is connected that's doing research in whatever you’re interested in. And if you don’t know what you’re interested UofT is the best place to be because you can explore anything and everything.
 
What will you do with your degree after graduation? (Future plans?)
 
This degree is specialized in the sense that within my graduating class, there were approximately 150-200 students who graduated with a degree in neuroscience. This degree allows you to either go straight into graduate school, spend a couple of years working before pursuing graduate studies or go into the workforce immediately. It’s versatile since the skills you acquire (critical thinking, analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, presenting) can be applied to any graduate field or any research oriented job. I graduated in June 2016 and am currently working as a Clinical Research Project Assistant at the Hospital for Sick Children. I am lucky enough to work in an area that is both related to my degree but also is an interest of mine; I work in the Neuropsychiatry Research Unit in a study that's testing whether a videogame can be used as a treatment method for ADHD. My undergraduate degree definitely played a role in me getting this position, my coursework in developmental psychology and neuroscience as well as the research experience I was able to attain through volunteer opportunities and work study positions. I plan on pursuing graduate studies in epidemiology; I want to look at mental illness among minority youth - specifically in second and third generation migrant youth. This may seem like a different direction compared to my undergraduate studies, but I took an epidemiology course in my fourth year and it really opened my eyes to looking at neuroscience and mental health through the lens of population health so I decided going to combine them to study mental health epidemiology.
 
What has your academic journey during your time been like as you progress toward graduation?
 

In my first year I took the introductory biology, chemistry, psychology courses which were outlined by the program requirements. Most of the content in biology and chemistry was similar to what is taught in grade 12 but the testing material and the pace at which you’re learning is quite different and can take some time to get used to. In first year, I think it’s important to take baby steps, it can get quite overwhelming so taking a lighter course load or taking some courses that are outside of your program requirements can help lighten the load and allow you to really branch out and explore the different courses offered at UTSC. My second tip for first year would be organize when you’ll be taking courses to fulfil your BREADTH requirements, I personally completed everything after finishing second year but you can finish it in your fourth year it's just important to remember so you aren’t scrambling near the end. Second year is when you take your first neuroscience course - Neuroanatomy Laboratory which is a great class to start you off to this field. It's almost like two classes in the sense that the lab component is very heavy and requires a lot of attention but it’s very rewarding when you get to the end and you realize you can name any area of the brain by just looking at a cross-section of it! I also took the following program requirements: cell biology, molecular biology and human brain and behaviour. A good tip is to take neuroanatomy before human brain and behaviour (or vice versa), the content in both class is heavy on neurophysiology/anatomy so having that previous background helps in doing well in each course. In terms of the mental health program, second year you’re free to choose from the plethora of second year psychology courses offered at UTSC which gives you a more detailed understanding of each area and prepares you well for choosing which grouping psycho-social or psycho-biological you want to focus your third and fourth year on. My second tip for your second year would be take a statistics course, I don’t think I can explain in words how important it is to have a good statistics understanding - the only way you’re going to be able to understand and analyze scientific literature is by having a good statistics foundation. My third tip for second year is making sure you have sort of volunteer or work study position in research, it’s really important to start early as it allows you to gain as much experience as possible within your undergraduate career. The neuroscience program in third year asks to complete three courses, Learning and Motivation, Sensory and Motor Systems and Human Physiology I - I took these courses over my third and fourth year and would suggest the same for anyone pursuing this program or taking them in separate semester in the least. Each of these courses is very content heavy and cover a wide area in a lot of detail - it’s much more manageable to tackle these courses independently rather than in one semester. Third year in the mental health program you decide which grouping you’re more interested in, based on what specialization you choose your courses. I choose the psycho-biological group so most my courses dealt with the clinical implications of behavioural disorders or brain heavy analysis of psychological constructs. Fourth year is really about finishing up your course requirements and taking courses that you maybe didn’t have a chance to take earlier. I really enjoyed my D level courses (Drug Addiction and Current Topics in Developmental Psychology) these courses are very heavy on presenting, group work and writing but I think this really prepares you well for graduate school and even the work force. The four years are going to go by really fast, you might feel overwhelmed, you might get into fourth year and realize there was an entire area of science that you didn’t know about and now really want to explore but all these feelings are normal and okay; the important thing is to be aware of these feelings and acknowledge them because keeping things bottled up is going to make the academic and social responsibilities you have even more daunting.