Mar 6, 2018
Two Classes about the Brain That Blew My Mind
On the first Friday of my last semester, I had a choice between two back-to-back 3-hour neuroscience electives. I only needed to register for one… I chose both.
It’s Week 5 now, and I've gotten used to taking the rushed coffee break in the middle of the 10am-4pm seminar block. I have even maintained my original excitement about the subjects. Every Friday morning starts with 9.26 Principles and Applications of Genetic Engineering for Biotechnology and Neuroscience, 10am-1pm. Next up is 9.24 Disorders and Diseases of the Nervous System, 1-4pm—the final elective I need to get my Course 9 - Brain and Cognitive Sciences minor.
It’s Week 5, and I can't wait to tell you why 9.24 and 9.26 are awesome, so here goes…
9.24 Disorders and Diseases of the Nervous System is my last and most exciting class of the week (or even the past 3.5 years?). It’s one of those classes you can only take at MIT. Every week, we get a new guest speaker for 1 out of the 3 class hours. And it’s not just any knowledgeable speaker, it’s one of the most knowledgeable speakers in the field! Seriously, I wrote down the following (somewhat paraphrased) quotes about the speakers from our Professor:
“He put this field on a strong footing…”
“One of the most important people in the world in the field of animal models of neurological disease…”
“Best statistical geneticist I know, and I know many across the world…”
“...and you can quote me on that.”
(Bonus quotable moments: “Excellence can’t be bought, but it can be paid for.” … “The best work has simplicity, yet leads to clarity.”)
Incidentally, the course Professor is also a really big deal in the field and he still hangs out with us for three hours every Friday afternoon!
So let me reiterate: the best experts in the world in their respective fields come to our class every week!!! Experts from Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department—and who knows who will visit next!
As a result, we get the most accurate and up-to-date yet intro-level overviews of topics in the field of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders (which are really the same thing because neuropsychiatric disorders are just as valid). And some of us even get to critique scientific papers right in front of the authors! Every week, at least one of our reading assignments is co-authored by the speaker, and we’re all required to present at least one of the readings—who knows if I’ll also have to critique a speaker's paper in front of them! The thought is so terrifying and yet so cool. We also get to hear previews of new research or personal reflections on prior trials or experiments by the researchers who did them! Plus, we get occasional private revelations from the best minds in neurology in the world, like a story about that one bet they made.
Incidentally, I heard my first faculty bet story during my CPW at a math department social: one of the foremost experts on the P versus NP Millenium Problem told me about the bet for an ounce of gold that he made—and lost—with one of his colleagues in the 1970s. Fun fact: while the Professor was telling me that story, I spilled ice cream on the math department carpet—in my defense, how could you pay attention to your melting ice cream during that kind of insider's scoop?
Lastly, my main takeaway from 9.24 has been that we know pretty much nothing about the brain. Actually, we know pretty much nothing about most humans diseases and disorders, and, in fact, the only field in which we have a good grasp on the mechanisms of disease is infectious diseases (e.g. malaria—we know how people get it and how it works). So, for the non-infected humans out there: your whole body is a mystery. As a course disclaimer, we were told that we need to get comfortable with having more questions than answers. And I love that. I find it thrilling to just get an introduction to the brain’s biggest mysteries (it also means there are no "conventional" problem sets for the class).
The professor for 9.26 Principles and Applications of Genetic Engineering for Biotechnology and Neuroscience is also a big deal in his field. In fact, one of my classmates took the class because she was a fan of the professor’s work (tbh, I’ve done that too for my Course 24 - Philosophy electives). As in 9.24, we get occasional insider glimpses into the latest and even upcoming developments in genetic engineering techniques and applications. The field is developing so rapidly that you almost require the occasional previews to stay up-to-date.
My main takeaway from 9.26 so far has been that biotechnology is astounding. You wouldn’t believe some of the things researchers can do nowadays, such as inserting the DNA of one type of bacteria into another type of bacteria, thereby essentially reprogramming one organism into another (source)! Unfortunately, this method worked for only some type of bacteria, but we don’t know why. As with many (or even most) experiments in biotechnology or neuroscience, the results or failures can’t be fully explained. It’s a massive operation of trial and error. And yet, gene therapy is likely the most promising approach to treating patients with genetic neurological or other disorders.
A final fun fact about 9.26: I am the only student in the class who hasn’t personally cloned DNA! We were asked about this on the first day of class and I, as the only Political Science (or really, the only non-biotechnology-related) major in the class, was the only one who didn’t raise their hand in response. Fortunately, the Professor was incredibly gracious about my lack of cloning experience, and assured me that my experience would come in handy during the latter part of the course when we discuss the ethical and political implications of genome editing. And, really, I felt lucky to even be in the class, considering that I was missing most of the pre-requisites for it.
I hope to blog more about these and my other classes in the coming weeks (avoiding the topics we aren’t supposed to disclose to the public). I also want to share important takeaways from my two Course 9 classes from last semester, which I still think about when considering personal dilemmas, or during late-night conversations on human morality. Turns out, neuroscience can provide starting points for questions that have plagued philosophers for years!
What I’m trying to say is: everyone should be in Course 9 - Brain and Cognitive Sciences, at least a little bit. Because we all have brains, so shouldn't we all strive to know how those brains work and how to fix them, if necessary?
Anyway, I should stop talking about the classes and start doing the work for them.
P.S.: am I starting to sound like Buzzfeed yet?