Course: NEU301/MOL310
Instructor: Mala Murthy
F 2019

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

NEU 301 is largely an extension of the topics covered in NEU 201. The course is organized into week long modules which cover different aspects relating to neurobiology beginning with cell differentiation and cell fate (how cells “decide” to become neurons and not liver cells), and then delving into other topics such as action potentials & electrochemical properties of neurons, synaptic plasticity, model systems, and concluding with recording methods. The last 2 weeks of the course are dedicated towards preparing and giving a partnered presentation on 2 papers of your choice.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

There are two 80 minute lectures a week. In a given week, one lecture will go over foundational concepts using the textbook readings as a guide. The second lecture will often go over a paper (usually from well-reputed journals such as Nature, Cell, or Science). It is expected that you come to class with both the textbook and paper readings done. The textbook readings can sometimes be a little long (as long as a whole chapter for a single lecture) but paper readings are usually a bit shorter. For many students, this class is the first where they seriously read neuroscience papers, and even for seasoned veterans, neuroscience papers can be dense and difficult to understand. Luckily, Dr. Murthy goes through the papers in great detail to help you understand, and so it’s not a big deal if you don’t have the papers mastered at the beginning of each class. The textbook also sometimes goes into more detail than is covered in lecture, so skimming can be an effective way to quickly get the big concepts down. Dr. Murthy also makes it clear that we’ll only be tested on content from the textbook that is covered in lecture, but the exams may ask questions about applicable content that isn’t covered in the problem sets. The course does go over a lot of concepts, but luckily the lectures are all recorded and uploaded to Blackboard. It can be very useful to relisten to lectures, especially when working on the problem sets or preparing for exams.

Learning For and From Assignments

At the end of each class, there’s a short pop-quiz which factors into your participation grade. The quiz questions usually aren’t too difficult and can be easily answered if you pay attention in class and do the readings. After a week’s worth of lectures, a problem set is assigned and is due the following Friday. These problem sets can be pretty difficult some weeks and there were a few problem sets where the wording needed to be clarified. Questions on the problem sets usually required you to apply rather than simply regurgitate the concepts learned in class. Problem sets occasionally required students to do calculations but usually questions prompted for descriptive answers. The problem sets also act as very good preparation for the midterm and final exams as the question formats tended to be similar. One thing to also note is the class does not really stress memorization too strongly—we’re allowed to bring a one and two sided cheat sheet to the midterm and final exams respectively, but your performance on the exam is more strongly correlated with how well you’ve mastered concepts from the course rather than how well you’ve memorized the slides or how detailed your cheat sheet is. Flashcards can be useful for memorizing the methods and findings of neuroscience papers, but again, conceptual understanding is more important than rote memorization. Office hours can be really useful for clarifying course concepts or problem set questions and there is some time dedicated to each precept section to go over questions about the problem sets. Dr. Murthy is very approachable, kind, and is very open to questions both during class and office hours. She’s very dedicated to the success of her students which can make a world of a difference in tough classes. The class is curved, but more flexibly than other courses which give a set ratio of As, Bs, and Cs each year (Dr. Murthy has mentioned that if need be, she won’t assign grades below a B-).

External Resources

There unfortunately is no tutoring available through McGraw for NEU301, but I personally found attending office hours to be enough for understanding course concepts. The class has a Piazza page which can be very useful for asking clarifying questions either about the problem sets or class material more generally. The textbook can be a good resource for clarifying concepts as well. Something I found very useful was to form a study group to go over concepts and problem set questions every week. The course does cover a decent amount of content between the lecture, textbook readings, and paper readings and having a group of students to discuss this content together can be really helpful for developing an understanding of concepts.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

NEU301 typically is taken after NEU201 and NEU202 (the two major or certificate prerequisite courses) and an introductory biology course is recommended as well. The course also borrows concepts from circuit physics to describe the dynamics of the neuron and so familiarity with those concepts can be useful. Having taken physics two years ago in high school, I found myself sufficiently prepared so a college course in physics likely isn’t necessary.

NEU301 is an excellent course to take after completing NEU201 and 202. It does a wonderful job of solidifying advanced foundational neuroscience concepts and is a great gateway for other 300 and 400 level courses. The course covers a large range of concepts and so no matter what your interests are, there’s likely something in the course which will be very interesting to anyone. The class can be a bit intimidating especially for sophomores after having taken NEU201 and 202 which are more geared to freshmen or sophomores and general interest than NEU301 which is geared towards junior or senior NEU and MOL majors, but it’s very possible to do well in it. It’s a time intensive and difficult course, so I would be careful about choosing a well-balanced schedule with this in mind, but it is also one of the most rewarding courses I’ve taken at Princeton.

Cellular Neurobiology

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