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10 Careers for Neurobiology Students

If you’re a neurobiology student, or you’re thinking about pursuing a PhD in neurobiology, you may be wondering what people do with PhDs after graduation. (If you’re not wondering this yourself, you can bet your parents are.) Here’s a list of ten careers for people who’ve studied neurobiology.

Conducting academic research

Most graduate students in areas related to neurobiology are trained as academic researchers. Most academic researchers are university faculty members who conduct funded research. And most of them have done one or two post-docs (short for post-doctoral research associate, a kind of professional lab assistant who works under the mentorship of a professor).

In many laboratories today, the laboratory head or principle investigator (PI) spends a lot of his or her time writing grants, serving on committees, and teaching. The lab head may delegate large portions of certain projects to post-docs who, by virtue of their PhD training, should be able to independently conduct most of the experiments and analysis on their assigned portion of the project. Typically a post-doc is expected to produce two academic journal articles a year in consult with the lab head.

In neurobiology, doing a post-doc is what typically separates the career path of a new PhD holder between research and teaching. The additional training and publications obtained as a post-doc, often in more than one lab, make people much more competitive for obtaining grant funding to support a research program.

Most research programs in the United States in neurobiology-related areas are federally funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or National Science Foundation (NSF). A typical NIH individual investigator grant (R01) usually runs over $200,000 per year for three to five years. This money pays part of the PI’s salary, the salary of any post-docs, and the stipend and sometimes tuition of graduate students after their first year. It also pays for laboratory equipment and supplies. The NSF has much less money for neurobiology than the NIH. It makes far fewer awards, and these are typically less than half the annual amounts of NIH awards.

Some faculty obtain money for research from foundations that support research to cure particular diseases. Also, it is common at the time of hiring for a faculty member to get a startup package of equipment, staff salaries, and supplies over several years. Startup packages in neurobiology-related areas may range from $250,000 to $750,000. Universities seek to recoup some of these costs from what are called indirect costs given with grants. Although the rate varies from institution to institution, indirect cost rates are around 50 percent in public universities and 75 percent in private ones. This means for every $100,000 of grant support obtained by a PI from the NIH, $50,000 to $75,000 in addition is given to the university to “support” the PI’s research, such as paying for laboratory space and library and animal facilities.

Times are rapidly changing as far as how laboratory research is conducted. Prior to World War II, research in the United States, like Europe and Japan, was concentrated in a few elite universities like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. From the late 1950s until about 2004, federal research funding exploded and federally sponsored research occurred in almost every major university in the country.

In the last decade, however, NIH funding has been relatively stagnant, and NIH priorities have shifted from basic research to research in areas associated with curing diseases. This has concentrated funding in larger labs in the top 10 or 20 universities that can support core facilities such as gene sequencers and other expensive molecular biological analyzers. Twenty years ago, an investigator, once established, might expect to have funding for 15 years or more for a lab consisting of himself or herself and a mix of a post-doc, a graduate student, and one technician. Now the average size of an NIH grant-holding lab is over 25 people, and the average duration of an R01 award is on the order of six years. The NIH is under enormous pressure to cure diseases rapidly, given the huge and increasing percentage of the federal budget spent on healthcare.

Working in industrial laboratories

An alternative to academic research is industry. A major source of careers for PhD neurobiologists is the pharmaceutical industry. The vast majority of pharmaceutical agents act on neurotransmitter or hormone receptors. Discovering new, useful drugs that act on the nervous system is an urgent and profitable business.

All drugs have to pass stringent multistage tests for efficacy and safety. Drug company laboratories test thousands of potential drugs that are either synthesized or found in nature. Synthesized drugs may be designed to have shapes that fit a particular receptor, or are derivatives of drugs known to activate receptors. Potential drugs are also found in natural toxins like snake and spider venoms, which are cocktails of neurotransmitter agonists and antagonists, many of which have never been synthesized.

Synthesized or natural compounds are first purified and analyzed for structure. Initial tests typically look for efficacy. Multi-well dishes contain compartments with single cells expressing different receptors whose responses are measured automatically to the potential drug. Safety testing is more complex because a new drug has to be safe for every tissue in the body. Testing in mice does not ensure human safety. Moreover, not all humans are genetically identical and some drugs may have serious side effects for a small percentage of people. Safety and efficacy testing go through a series of increasingly expensive clinical trials, during which the drug could fail at any time.

The downside of working in the pharmaceutical industry compared to academia is that there is much less independence. Pharma researchers are charged with inventing and evaluating new drugs or devices that will be profitable to the company. On the other hand, a major advantage of this career path is that it isn’t so dependent on writing grants. Pharma researchers generally work in laboratories that have excellent, up-to-date instrumentation and good staff support. If you can work within the confines of the company’s directives and need for bottom-line accountability, the work environment can be excellent, and some independence in research, including publishing in academic journals, is possible.

Teaching, from elementary to graduate school

In the United States, most PhD holders are teachers rather than federally funded researchers. They teach primarily in colleges and universities, but they may also teaching in primary and secondary schools. Teaching is essential to the overall mission of science for both creating the next generation of researchers and teachers, and disseminating the results of scientific research to the larger community.

The fact that someone is primarily a teacher doesn’t means that research is out of the question. It just usually has to be done on a smaller budget. Many important research questions can be approached with modest laboratory equipment and time. Great advances in neurobiology have been made using invertebrate preparations, some of which have resulted in breakthroughs in neurobiology or the development of important drugs.

One promising note is that many universities are now endowing “chairs” for a larger percentage of the faculty. Endowing a chair means getting a lump sum of money, around $2 million, usually from a donor, and using the interest to pay most the faculty member’s salary and provide a modest research budget. Some graduate stipends are endowed the same way. This method may easily pay for itself by making the faculty member more competitive for obtaining federal money.

Many people believe that the U.S. educational system must emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects much earlier in education. It may be appropriate to hire more science Ph.D.s to teach high school and teach and run elementary schools. If you want your students to learn some neurobiology, would you rather have them taught by a neurobiologist or an education major?

Writing and editing

There are other careers involved in disseminating neurobiological knowledge besides classroom teaching. Writing about science and medicine includes everything from academic monographs to undergraduate textbooks to blogs and popular books.

Another important function associating with science writing is editing professional journals. The editing process is essential in screening the write-up of data in refereed articles that become available to other researchers in the field. Science absolutely depends on the refereed dissemination of results and the reproduction of those results based on published methods for all its progress.

Using neurobiological knowledge in business

More and more the United States’ economy revolves around acquiring, processing, and mining information. Neurobiology has impacted commerce in artificial intelligence and robotics, and this impact is growing.

The first artificial intelligence simulations could perform well in very limited domains like proving geometry theorems and playing checkers. Later, artificial neural nets and fuzzy sets took on complex control functions. Recently, computer systems play champion chess, win at Jeopardy, and may be able to drive cars. Factory robots that previously only did programmed, simple, repetitive motions are now able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

These examples show that neurobiological knowledge has impacted business at many levels, from brain logic, to networks using neuron-like elements, to robots with spinal cord-like hierarchical controllers, to current attempts with memristors to model neuronal synapses. Google has many basic scientists among their employees, for example.

Also, advertising is increasingly based on data about people and their preferences and habits. Architecture and city planning take into account how individuals and groups interact with their environment. Avatars and other kinds of agents may interact with people in more human-like ways using neurobiological knowledge about the brain and how it works.

Developing sensory prosthetics

Many surveys show that the fear of losing a major sense — like sight, hearing, or touch — is one of the biggest for many people, on a par with the fear of getting cancer. Currently, however, only deafness from conductive failure or auditory hair cell death can be overcome with any sort of implant.

The inability to replace vision or somatosensory loss is not primarily due to lack of computer power, but rather due to the inability to interface computer processing with the nervous system. Neurobiology will be essential for the development of sensory prosthetics that can replace lost natural senses. Such prosthetics require that we learn where to place the brain-computer interface in the nervous system, how to communicate with neurons there, and what messages to send to the neurons and receive feedback from them.

Stimulation of the nervous system has in Parkinson’s disease and some types of depression proven to be more effective than drug treatments. Some are calling the new field of this type of neural stimulation electroceuticals. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) and transcranial magnetic and direct current stimulation (TMS and tDCS) are being used to treat a variety of pathologies and enhance normal learning and function.

Transplantation of stem cells — particularly one’s own cells converted into stem cells — is also a promising technology for many brain and other diseases. Success with this technology will require more advanced knowledge of genetics and epigenetics of neurons, neural circuitry, and neuropharmacology.

Companies such as Medtronic are developing implantable devices ranging from cardiac pacemakers to more complex interfaces with the nervous system. The use of implantable devices that affect the nervous system via recording and/or current injection is called by some the field of “electroceuticals.”

Replacing motor function

Spinal cord or brain injury, strokes, and tumors are some possible causes of paralysis. A person could lose a limb from injury or cancer. The field of neurobiology can make important contributions to restoring motor function through either the repair/replacement of central control neural circuitry, or through prosthetics.

In spinal cord injuries in mammals, the axons that run from motor cortex to the alpha motor neurons that drive the muscles, and from sensory receptors to somatosensory cortex, are severed and don’t regrow. Considerable laboratory research on the wound environment and axon growth parameters is being conducted, but restoring function when the spine is completely severed is usually not possible. Understanding the neurobiology of axonal growth, cell-adhesion, and chemo-affinity substances is a major challenge for the current generation of neurobiologists.

Paralysis from central brain damage is sometimes partly overcome by activating alternate pathways. Training regimes such as constraint induced therapy (CIT) can facilitate this. Currently it is unclear if additional neural plasticity in the brain might be induced pharmacologically, or with stem cells or electrical current stimulation.

Another approach to paralysis is to drive limbs artificially. This typically involves recording a signal from the brain or an axon from the spinal cord that is relayed past the injury to the muscle or alpha motor neuron that drives the muscle. As in other cases, the brain-computer interface needs work. Muscles are activated by different types of neurons recruited in a specific order firing at different rates depending on the force required and the duration needed. Poor emulation of this control produces jerky and inappropriate movements that don’t work for walking and balance or properly controlling the arms and hands.

Another possibility, particularly when a limb is missing, is to use central neural signals to control and artificial limb. This is a challenging problem because millions of neurons in multiple brain and spinal cord areas are involved. Nevertheless, roboticists dealing with imbuing robots with fine dexterity — such as the dexterity required to pick up an egg without breaking it — are dealing with similar control problems and those algorithms may be applied to prostheses.

Working in brain ethics and conducting brain studies of religious experience

Neuobiologists also have contributions to make to fields normally considered “liberal arts.” Spirituality and art are essential parts of high human existence. Brain science can contribute to the human search for truth and the existence of other realms because truth and beauty depend on the human brain. This means that knowledge of brain science and neurobiology should lead to careers in fields like bioethics, where writing and lecturing on the relationship between the brain and mind are essential.

For example, for thousands of years, meditation and prayer have been known to alter consciousness in many beneficial ways. These mind states, induced by behavioral procedures, produce clear changes in brain activity that can be studied scientifically. Knowledge of how meditative practices change brain activity may yield important health benefits for treating depression and enhancing normal human potential.

Religious experiences can be transformative, for good or bad. They incite a person to improve his or her life and be a better person, or convince a person to become almost slavishly devote to a group such as a cult. It is certainly at least partly a scientific question why some religious feelings produce a universal respect for all life, while others end up with a disdain for it.

Another complex interface exists between neurobiology and the law and ethics. Human society and law are based on ideas about free will and guilt. But the law also recognizes “temporary insanity” and acknowledges that some people are not mentally capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. Society must to be able to base legal judgments on sound neurobiological evidence.

Using brain science in behavioral economics

Humans make decisions that are less than rational, and behavioral economics looks at how these decisions come into play when it comes to financial matters. Advertising and marketing are endeavors that take advantage of irrationalities such as associating cars with attractive actors to make sales. On the negative side, addiction, substance abuse, and eating disorders are behaviors that may potentially be disrupted by specific schedules of reinforcement. Neurobiological knowledge is increasingly being applied to clinical problems, and psychologists and psychiatrists often work with neurobiologists in team endeavors, attacking addiction and other maladaptive behaviors.

Neural counseling

While our bodies are living longer, our brains can’t always keep up. That makes it difficult to know what to do for people with relatively healthy bodies and poorly functioning brains. Some babies are born with severe intellectual disabilities, while many elderly people transition very gradually from normal to low intellectual function. At what point are people not competent to make decisions about their own welfare?

When people carry genetic mutations that have a significant risk of producing severely deformed or retarded offsping, genetic counseling is often helpful.

Neural assessment of intrinsic brain activity may become widespread for cases of brain decline, as in Alzheimer’s, or when severe brain injury occurs. Recent research on “locked-in” syndrome using brain scans indicates that some people thought to be comatose are actually conscious of their surroundings, and others not, without treatment staff being able to distinguish between the two states from any standard test.

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