The History of the Neuroscience and Behavior Program at Vassar College

by Carol Christensen, Professor of Psychology
January 2011
Program Website

The Biopsychology Program came into existence in 1971. However collaboration between the Psychology and Zoology departments started much earlier, as discussed in The Administrative History of Vassar College (pages 17-18).

The Zoology and Psychology departments first collaborated in 1918 to offer a set of coordinated classes: Animal Behavior and Animal Psychology, which had to be taken concurrently. In 1927, these classes merged into a single course called Animal Behavior and Psychology, which was team-taught by faculty from the two departments until 1937, when it became solely a psychology class. From 1943 until 1947, an interdepartmental major in Psychology and Physiology was offered. Students in this program took courses from both departments, as well as an interdepartmental seminar class. In 1963, the Department of Psychology began to offer physiological psychology at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Biopsychology was first introduced as an interdisciplinary concentration in 1971. In that year, only one biopsychology course, a senior seminar, was taught; the remainder of the classes required for a major in biopsychology major came from the departments of Biology, Psychology and Chemistry. Opportunities for independent research projects first became possible to senior biopsychology majors in 1974. By 1994, although no further courses had been added under the Biopsychology Programs, majors were required to take courses relating to three main areas of the field: input, processing and output; development and plasticity; and evolution and behavior. A multidisciplinary course called Models and Systems in Biopsychology, which combined lectures and laboratory work, was introduced in 1996. In 2002-2003 the Biopschology program offered a 13-credit interdepartmental undergraduate major.

Biologist Patricia Johnson and Psychologist Robert Gallon were co-founders of the program in 1971. Just as the study of animal behavior played a much earlier role in the collaboration between the two departments, it stimulated the formation of the major in the early 1970s. Patricia Johnson recalled that the classic findings on animal behavior of Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frish influenced both biologists and psychologists and led to conversations that resulted in the decision to start the program. Two animal behaviorists were hired in quick succession in Biology and first one and then a second physiological psychologist were recruited to the Psychology department. Coursework in Chemistry was required until a decade after the start of the program at which time that preparation was recommended, although not required. Currently approximately a dozen faculty in the two departments participate in the Neuroscience and Behavior program.

In 2004-2005 the name of the program was changed to Neuroscience and Behavior, reflecting the greater influence of neuroscience more broadly in the parent disciplines. The focus on animal behavior remained and was retained in the new name of the program. The senior seminar in Neuroscience and Behavior is still the capstone experience for graduating seniors. The Models-and-Systems course imposed a greater cohesion to the major by focusing on multiple levels of analysis, from the more molar levels of ecology and behavior to the more reduced neural, genetic and biochemical levels. Although majors can draw from required and many elective courses in the two departments, the coherence provided by Models-and-Systems course establishes a strong sense of shared perspective among the students. Majors are well prepared in the content and the methods of the discipline. Many elect independent research for Vassar credit, participate in summer laboratory work through Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute or obtain similar summer experience in laboratories across the country.

Since its inception 562 students have graduated as Biopsychology or Neuroscience-and-Behavior majors. More recently over twenty have graduated each year. Many have subsequently obtained advanced degrees in the discipline. Others have obtained professional degrees in Medicine, Public Health, Law, Business, or Journalism. The remainder populates professions not directly related to their major, but they remain enriched by it and the rest of their Vassar education.