Jed Syrenne wants to explore unanswered questions and large mysteries, so he was eager for the University of Montana to open the door to a neuroscience major.

Last school year, UM launched the major, and for Syrenne, it's a perfect fit.

"I'm kind of an eclectic person anyway, so having a large interdisciplinary field is really nice," said Syrenne, a junior from Florence, on Tuesday.

UM already had a graduate program in neuroscience, but since it kicked off an undergraduate major, the program has drawn 50 students, more than some other new majors, and with interest from expected and unexpected corners.

The strong enrollment right out of the gate belies the notion students seeking science degrees don't look to UM.

"We expected it to bleed off majors from psychology and biology, but it's also clearly bringing in new majors as well, kids who wouldn't have come here otherwise," said Chris Comer, dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences.

In fact, Syrenne would have considered other universities had UM not added the major of his choice.

Tuesday, Comer was delivering a lecture to 14 students in a fundamentals of neuroscience class, even though he's dean of the college. He rattled off acronyms at students – and defined them – rebutted theories about the importance of brain sizes, and told them to ask him about how he writes tests.

Before starting the lecture, he said it's the only course he's teaching, but it's important to be in the classroom.

"It's why you got into this business in the first place. Every dean should still be a scholar," Comer said.


Neuroscience is often in the news, and students are interested in it for both health careers and personal quests, such as wanting to understand mental illness in family members or friends, said Jesse Hay, director of the undergraduate major. 

"It's a new national priority area for directing research and innovation and entrepreneurship," Hay said. "So we get a lot of students attracted by that. It's kind of the white space on the map in science."

In other words, students are seeking to make discoveries, and the major offers countless ideas. 

"There's so much more to learn than we already know. It's an area for exploration with huge possibilities," he said.

In the past, he said, students at UM who were interested in the field had to major in biology or psychology.

The neuroscience major is designed to be interdisciplinary, and it has two tracks, one with a cognitive and behavioral emphasis leaning more on psychology, and one with a cellular and molecular option, having more chemistry.

"To have a broad-based neuroscience degree like this, you have to have a very broad-based campus with a very strong psychology component and very strong biology component," Hay said.

The major also takes advantage of all the different faculty studying a component of the brain, he said. Some professors are studying the synthesis of new drugs and others are looking at the mind and the brain in literature.

"We also have at least one economics faculty member who studies the cognition of consumer choice," Hay said.

UM launched an initiative in health and medicine, but Hay said the idea for a neuroscience major came earlier, roughly four years ago. So far, he said interest in the program is high among in-state and out-of-state students, with an estimated 40 percent of the majors nonresidents. 


Drew Kinney, who will graduate this spring in neuroscience at UM, had been a pre-medical student in Bozeman. At Montana State University, he was placed in the neuroscience program, but he realized he wanted to do research rather than practice medicine.

So he started at UM his junior year, and he'll seek a doctorate degree in the future.

"A lot of professors really do try to get you into research as soon as possible, which is a big deal, especially in this field," Kinney said.

He's studying science that relates to rare diseases, and he hopes to help people affected by them with his work.

"So it would be really cool to have an impact there, be able to be better at diagnosing things prenatally or just learning about rare processes," Kinney said.

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