By Rob Mitchum
Photo by Chris Strong
Megan McNulty leads non-biology majors through the Core Biology sequence. Whether in the neuroscience-“flavored” track of the general Core Bio course or one of the two Core Bio topics courses (From Brain to Behavior and The Human Body in Health and Disease), the Neurobiology, Pharmacology, and Physiology PhD alumnus draws upon her education and laboratory experience to expose her students to the process of science, not just the results.
What is it like teaching advanced neurobiological concepts to students who aren’t planning to major in biology?
One of the reasons I love teaching non-majors is that they are coming from many different disciplines and they raise questions that prompt us to think about the biology in really different ways. It’s probably the most challenging aspect of the job, but it’s also the most exciting too. What students bring to the table are ideas and insights that I, as a trained biologist, may not have considered.
What do you think draws an undergraduate to pick the neuroscience flavor or topics course?
I think there is widespread interest in understanding how the brain works, how this amazing, but yet mysterious organ drives our behavior. In the face of emerging fields like neuroeconomics or the neurobiological basis of decision-making, we have students coming from those more classical areas of study and seeing how they can incorporate the study of neuroscience into those topics. That draws a number of students. But I also think that students, in general, appreciate that understanding the brain helps us understand who we are, why we act the way we do, and the underlying basis of many diseases.
How do you think your scientific research background helps you in your current position?
My research experience certainly shaped my thinking and approach to scientific questions. I see the impact of that when I design courses and when I think of ways to relay information to the students.
Even though the audience is non-majors who may not be destined for a career in the biological sciences or in research, they’re genuinely interested in knowing how science is done. One of the things I try to show them is how we came across this knowledge, how it emerged, what experimental approaches were used to arrive at these conclusions, and what questions remain. I find that students are really intrigued by what’s unknown.
What do you hope your students take away from your courses?
One of the objectives of core biology, in general, is to give these students an opportunity to learn how to think about the scientific process. When they face scenarios out in the real world where having an understanding of biology is useful, they have ideas about how to go about thinking about those problems, even if they don’t know the specific facts. They have ideas of where to look for information and how to critically review the information that's already out there.
Do you have a favorite lecture or lab?
I really enjoy the sessions where students have the opportunity to propose their own hypotheses or generate their own data to shed light on scientific questions or problems. I always find it fascinating to see the ideas the students generate. One of the motivations behind these activities is to highlight that, in this context, students can make meaningful contributions to our understanding of biological processes.
Originally published on June 4, 2012.