Science of the Mind: Neuroscience at the University of Oregon

Science of the Mind

A longstanding area of research excellence and a popular new major, neuroscience takes center stage at the University of Oregon

Story by Jason Stone

Unifying knowledge from biology, psychology, human physiology, and many other disciplines, neuroscience is a dynamic and growing field with deep roots at the University of Oregon.

In 1979, our Institute of Neuroscience (ION) was founded with the mission to advance knowledge of the nervous system through multidisciplinary collaborations.

In the 2020-21 academic year, neuroscience marks another major milestone on campus: debuting as a new undergraduate major.

“Given the existing faculty excellence in neuroscience at the UO, it seemed like a no-brainer—pun intended—to create a neuroscience major,” says Nicole Dudukovic, senior instructor of psychology, faculty member with the Robert D. Clark Honors College, and director of the new undergrad program.


Jared Acosta-King wearing a lab coat and sitting in a lab
A UO senior in the Clark Honors College who is planning to apply for both PhD and MD/PhD programs, Isabelle Cullen says it’s literally the major she’d been waiting for.

"My younger brother has Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, and that led to an early awareness and questions in my mind,” she recalls.

“My goal in science classes has always been to understand more about the mechanisms and neural circuits in the brain of ASD. For a while that led me to jumping around majors, but it was an easy choice to make the switch when this new major was announced, because it aligns perfectly with what I want to do in graduate school.”

Students enrolled in the neuroscience major explore the relationship between the brain and behavior. Rooted in the natural sciences, the program also trains students to communicate effectively about neuroscience research and to develop quantitative, analytical, critical-thinking, and technical skills.

The curriculum emphasizes the cooperative, interdisciplinary nature of much work that’s happening in this exciting field.

Neuroscience at the UO


“Neuroscience students need to learn not only theory and methods from multiple fields but also how to collaborate across them,” Dudukovic says.

Questioning the nature of our own minds is among the most ancient of all investigations—while the final frontiers of understanding could represent some of the most astonishing and transformative breakthroughs of the 21st century. The human nervous system is that amazing.

How complex is this puzzle? Our brains alone have about 86 billion neurons, each with around 1,000 connections to other cells. In addition to the central nervous system—comprised of the brain and spinal cord—neuroscientists also study the peripheral nervous system, which encompasses all of the body’s remaining nerves, from their cranial or spinal origins to their motor and sensory endings. The scope of inquiry is literally mind boggling!

Of course, neuroscientists don’t regard the nervous system as anatomy alone. Some neuroscientists create mathematical models or computer simulations to explore biological systems, and others specialize in the study of mental phenomena including behavior, consciousness, learning, and memory.

David McCormick delivers a talk on Mind, Brain and Reality at the Science Knight Out event on Tuesday, April 17, 2018
“Perhaps the greatest discovery of humankind is the realization that the mind—its thoughts, emotions, memories, and aspirations—are all the result of patterns of activity bouncing around inside the most complex structure in the known universe. There is literally a neural circuit of anything human: art, love, music, economics, friendship, and even fascination with the brain!”
David McCormick, professor of biology and director of the Institute of Neuroscience

Dudukovic notes that UO’s new major was developed to offer rigorous training that will prepare students for graduate studies or a variety of professional career paths.

“All of our students are encouraged to get hands-on experience and skills working in a neuroscience lab,” she says. “The UO has an established reputation for excellence in neuroscience research, and there are many different labs that undergraduate students can join.”

The new major—the first of its kind at a public university in Oregon—is proving to be a popular choice in its first year, with 77 students already enrolled to pursue a bachelor of science or bachelor of arts in neuroscience.

“As a neuroscience major at the UO, I get the opportunity to gain research experience and learn from dedicated faculty and mentors,” says Minh Nguyen, a senior who plans to apply to medical schools after graduating.

“Neuroscience is such a new and exciting field that had always captivated my interest. It is fascinating to be a part of this emerging journey.”

Breyaundra Woods
“The day I heard this new major was official, I told my professor I wanted to sign up. Neuroscience pools knowledge from many different programs, and I think of the major as a bridge that will help undergraduates identify and connect with their specific areas of research interest. Everyone is very excited about the potential to pull people together from different parts of campus and form something like a family.”
Breyaundra Woods, Class of 2022, San Diego, California

Neuroscience at the UO

SCIENTISTS TRAINED BY Center for Translational Neuroscience (CTN) IN ITS FIRST FIVE YEARS


Minh Anh Nguyen working on equipment in a lab
Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience

Neuroscience at the UO is a rewarding, interdisciplinary major designed to prepare students for a variety of career paths in healthcare, nonprofits, research, and government.

The curriculum includes rigorous, foundational course work in math, statistics, and the natural sciences. The 18-credit neuroscience core, as well as upper-division elective courses are offered through the departments of biology, psychology, and human physiology. As neuroscience majors, students gain access to award-winning faculty across a variety of academic disciplines.

With a neuroscience degree, students will be prepared to pursue health-related careers, such as medicine, physical therapy, and occupational therapy. Graduates will also be equipped for science-related government, nonprofit, and health industry jobs. Additionally, neuroscience majors will be competitive for graduate programs at research universities.

Explore and Apply


A female researching with an owl flapping its wings while perched on her arm
Graduate Program in Neuroscience

Administered through the Institute of Neuroscience, the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Graduate Program offers robust training across disciplines. While the majority of students enter the program through the department of biology, students also come from the departments of human physiology, psychology, mathematics, and physics.

The goal of the graduate program is to train students to think independently, creatively, and critically about problems in neuroscience. Our program offers training in a variety of skills that will prepare students for successful careers in research, teaching, policy, or industry.

Additionally, the Center for Translational Neuroscience offers personalized, mentorship-based professional development and training opportunities tailored to graduate, postdoctoral, and early-career scholars.

Explore and Apply


Why Study Neuroscience? What Lies Ahead?

If you’re like a lot of people, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “neuroscience” could be “healthcare.” Even beyond the clinic, however, people trained in neuroscience are already playing key roles in many other industries and organizations.




The next 50 years are expected to bring major breakthroughs in understanding and treating nervous system illnesses, trauma, and disorders—in fact, the Society for Neuroscience predicts that we’ll look back on this time as “the era of neurotherapeutics.”



Mental Health and Wellness

The realization that everything mental has a biological basis in the brain has dramatically changed how society approaches the practice of mental well-being, with the development of positive mental aspects as important as working through the negative.




Companies worldwide are using the results of neuroscience research to inform their business practices, marketing strategies, and work environment designs.



Government, Law, and Criminal Justice

Elected officials, governmental agencies, and nonprofit leaders also rely upon the expertise of neuroscientists to help guide public projects and social policies. And as it continues to unlock the root causes of criminal behavior, neuroscience is becoming increasingly common in the courtroom.




Neuroscientists are closely involved with developing many cutting-edge breakthroughs including wearable technology and artificial intelligence. For example, understanding the architecture of the brain has inspired a revolution in pattern recognition and deep learning that is currently driving much of the progress in computer science.




Neuroscience has contributed greatly to our understanding of how students learn, and it continues to find new applications in improving educational outcomes for all types of learners.

Emily Norquist
“The introductory STEM courses can be intimidating, but UO has lots of amazing, free resources to help students meet the challenge. For me, the Teaching and Academic Engagement Center’s Class Encore program was a real lifesaver. I was kind of introverted when I first came to college, and the opportunity to meet weekly and work with classmates in a smaller group environment helped me to form relationships that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Emily Norquist, Class of 2022, Huntington Beach, California


Your amazing brain
Minh Anh Nguyen
“Map It Out! is a program I founded this past summer to connect UO mentors with high school students from underserved communities who are interested in STEM-related research and healthcare professions. As a first-generation college student myself, I understand how important it can be for these students to see they have a place in these careers, and there are people here who will understand their stories and advocate for them.”
Minh Anh Nguyen, Class of 2021, Clackamas, Oregon

Neuroscience, from the Lab to Real-World Impact

Every day, University of Oregon researchers are making amazing advancements in neuroscience that not only increase knowledge within the academic field, but also have the potential to improve life, health, and society at large.


Neuroscience research at the UO is tackling key questions

  • How do neural circuits produce behavior?
  • What mechanisms generate the large diversity of neurons within the brain?
  • How do these neurons “wire up” into functional circuits?
  • What are the circuits of reward, addiction, memory, and cognitive flexibility?
  • What can computational approaches tell us about how the brain operates?
  • How do neural stem cells choose between self-renewal and differentiation?
    Isabelle Cullen
    “This is a great major specifically for students who want to get directly involved in research as undergraduates. A nice thing about neuroscience is, there are so many different types of research you can do—from molecular, cellular, behavioral, anatomical, and computational, to more explorative types of research. We have some of the best research facilities ever right here on our campus, and students have the opportunity to get connected with some of the top people in the field.”
    Isabelle Cullen, Class of 2022, Dover, New Hampshire

    Research Centers and Facilities


    People working throughout a lab

    Since 1979, the Institute of Neuroscience (ION) has advanced visionary neuroscience research with a special emphasis on collaborative, integrated studies. The current faculty roster unites experts from the Departments of Biology, Psychology, Human Physiology, and Mathematics, as well as the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. There are active research interest groups focused on the areas of cognitive, cellular, and systems neuroscience and developmental biology. Reflecting the collaborative philosophy of the University of Oregon, ION and the vast majority of all life science laboratories occupy contiguous space in the expansive Lorry I. Lokey Science Complex.


    A person getting a brain scan

    With a mission of transformative science for social change, the Center for Translational Neuroscience (CTN) brings together faculty and research staff interested in applying basic neuroscience methods such as neuroimaging, neuroendocrine research, and psychophysiology to develop effective prevention and intervention programs. Now in its fifth year, the center has trained over 40 scientists and launched a number of well-known, scalable, evidence-based interventions for child and adolescent mental health problems. CTN is located in the Robert and Beverly Lewis Integrative Science Building.


    A zebrafish swimming

    Beginning in the 1960s, UO scientists pioneered the now-widespread use of zebrafish (Danio rerio) as a model organism for studying genetics and nervous system development. Today, our campus Zebrafish Facility houses 80,000 zebrafish and supports research in six biology laboratories. UO also is home to the Zebrafish International Resource Center (ZIRC)—the central research repository for wild-type and mutant strains of the fish, it maintains an amazing 43,493 strains—and the Zebrafish Information Network (ZFIN), which serves as the model organism research database.


    A person reviewing an MRI scan

    Operating Siemens Prisma and 3T Skyra magnetic resonance imaging systems, the Robert and Beverly Lewis Center for Neuroimaging is a UO core research facility supporting a wide range of interdisciplinary, multifaceted research in neuroscience and biology. The center offers full capabilities for the design and fabrication of MR coils to support a broad range of research needs and applications.


    Neuroscience at the UO

    awarded to CTN to lead research addressing opioid addiction

    Faculty and Research Highlights


    Judith Eisen in the zebrafish lab

    Known worldwide as a pioneer in using zebrafish to study the nervous system, Judith Eisen was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2018.


    Tim Gardner

    At the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, Tim Gardner is unlocking clues to the workings of short-term memory by studying birdsong.


    Sarah DuBrow

    A specialist in how people learn and use the structure of their environments, Sarah DuBrow was named a 2020 Research Fellow by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


    Santiago Jarmillo

    In a recent series of studies, Santiago Jaramillo discovered the brain area in mice that links sound, action, and reward expectation.


    Nicole Swann working with students in the EEG lab

    In EEG data, Nicole Swann found markers that can aid the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and fine-tune therapeutic treatments for motor disorders.


    Philip Fisher

    Director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience, Philip Fisher is currently leading a study of the coronavirus’ impact on families with young children.


    Nicole Dudukovic

    Leading class discussions about the neurological basis of learning and memory helped inspire Nicole Dudukovic to create UO’s neuroscience major.


    Shawn Lockery

    An expert on the neuronal basis of behavior who has also made outstanding achievements as an entrepreneur, Shawn Lockery was named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors in 2020.

    Meet Our Faculty