The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) earlier today approved a new Ph.D. program within the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience.

The program will officially launch in fall 2021 under the direction of Michelle Olsen, an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. In the works for three years, Olsen said student demand drove the new program’s quick inception.

“Students from all over the United States have been emailing me for the past two years to find out when our program will launch, and these letters were part of what was provided to SCHEV to demonstrate demand for the program,” Olsen said.

The program will start small, with about six students in the first class. By the time it is fully operational, the number of total students in the program will be about 24, according to Olsen. Students who enter the program will learn how to conduct neuroscience research on healthy brain development and functioning as well as with respect to various neurological disorders. Students will also study neurotechnology approaches and tools needed to investigate the brain and nervous system.

The program requires a minimum of 96 credit hours of coursework and research. During their first semester, students will participate in two different laboratory rotations that will introduce them to neuroscience faculty members. Students will then choose a mentor and lab that will guide them through the program. Individual research projects, restricted electives, and free electives will be tailored to each student’s interests. Students will also participate in career development workshops.

Michelle Olsen, an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience, poses for a photo by a widow. She is wearing a dark flower print shirt.

Michelle Olsen, an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience, poses for a photo by a widow.  She is wearing a dark flower print shirt.
Michelle Olsen, an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience, will lead the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience Ph.D. program, launching in fall 2010.

The new program joins three neuroscience Ph.D. programs in Virginia, including George Mason University, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Commonwealth University, and nearly 200 similar programs nationwide. “All institutions of higher learning should have neuroscience Ph.D. programs, just like we have Ph.D. programs in biochemistry, biology, genetics, and psychology,” Olsen said.

The approval of the Ph.D. program comes five years after the School’s undergraduate neuroscience program was approved by SCHEV in spring 2016. The undergraduate degree has quickly become popular with Virginia Tech students, with roughly 800 undergraduate students enrolled.

Christine Faunce, a senior majoring in neuroscience, intends to be among the first class of the Ph.D. program. “The School of Neuroscience has invested so much in their undergraduate students' research experiences, and it is wonderful that students can now apply to continue their research passions with the School of Neuroscience,” she said. “As a Ph.D. student, I would feel confident that my curriculum and professors are adapting to this fairly new field because I have witnessed this flexibility and acknowledgment of the unknown throughout my time as an undergrad. The School of Neuroscience has a range of research topics being studied, and my intellectual curiosity has benefited from the diversity and wealth of knowledge that my professors provide.” Faunce is expected to graduate in May 2021.

“The development and approval of this new graduate program is a monumental step forward for the School of Neuroscience,” said Michael A. Fox, director and a professor in the School of Neuroscience, as well as professor in both the College of Science’ Department of Biological Sciences and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “The strong interest we have already seen in the program demonstrates the national recognition that our school has received and speaks to the innovative and significant research programs created by our faculty.”

Harald Sontheimer, founding executive director of the School of Neuroscience, added, “It was clear from the outset that a School of Neuroscience must serve the broadest range of learners from undergraduates to doctoral students. Hence the doctoral degree was in the plan from inception.” Sontheimer said he recruited Olsen from the University of Alabama four years ago to specifically launch a doctoral program. “Had it not been for her tireless effort and patience during the past three years, this program would not go live this year,” Sontheimer said.

“A Ph.D. in neuroscience will offer students a deep understanding of a field that addresses debilitating health issues, such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, epilepsy, and addiction disorders,” said Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science. “It also shows the growing strength of the research and educational neuroscience thread that ties Blacksburg and the pioneering health and brain-related science in Roanoke.”

 Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said of today’s approval, “The success of Virginia Tech’s School of Neuroscience demonstrates its value to our community and the pressing need to better understand brain disorders and neurological health. SCHEV’s approval of our Ph.D. program makes it possible for us to continue advancing this important field of study.”