CCSN Project Building (L33 PSYCH 5191 / L41 BIOL 5622)

The goals of this course are to develop a trans-disciplinary research project, to write about it fluently, and to present it eloquently. Each student, in consultation with a group of faculty members, develops a research plan in their chosen area of interest. At the beginning of the course, a committee of 3-5 faculty members and one senior CCSN student is assembled for each student, with the composition of the committee tailored to the student’s topic of interest. Importantly, these faculty mentors are chosen to represent the three sub-disciplines. The course emphasizes group work and presentations aimed at developing all aspects of the project building process. Each student gives two hour-long presentations to the class and their committee, the first one focused on the background and motivation for the project, and the second one focused on research design and methods. Extensive discussion with both the faculty members, and the student cohort helps students develop and refine their trans-disciplinary plan. The culmination of the course is an NRSA-style grant proposal that, for many students, will serve both as a solid precursor to their thesis proposal, and as a potential pre-doctoral funding proposal. Faculty provide guidance on critical components of the development of a research plan, including how to perform literature searches, formulate testable hypotheses, write critical literature summaries, and design experiments and analyses. Students are also guided in the development of a training plan tailored to their specific research program and skill development needs, as well as in the development of a plan for ongoing ethics training. Practical aspects of grant writing, such as budgeting, are also emphasized. We have recently added a mock “NIH review” session to the beginning of the course to provide students with more insight into the federal review process and to provide them exposure to previous outstanding applications. Students are assigned as primary, secondary and tertiary reviewers on previous students’ NRSA proposals and provide written reviews just as they would if they were on study section. Students and the course master then sit in the round – as it is done in study section – and critique each proposal. This experience helps students understand better both how to be an effective reviewer and how to effectively communicate the importance, novelty, and feasibility of the work they propose. We do this at the start of the semester in order to give students guidance on how to develop their own proposals most effectively. Finally, each student critiques a subset of the proposals at multiple stages, so that each proposal has had input across the burgeoning expertise of the broad cohort of students.

Semester:  Fall.  Boot camp is scheduled in the last two weeks of August.
Course master: Professor Larry Snyder (

Advanced CCSN (E62 BME 519)

This course will develop critical thinking and analysis skills with regard to topics in Cognitive, Computational and Systems Neuroscience. A particular focus of the course will be aimed toward quantitative literacy, statistical methodology, and pragmatic hands-on experience with the tools and best practices needed to conduct state-of-the-art research in modern studies of brain and behavior. Complementary approaches will be emphasized, including deduction vs induction, frequentist vs Bayesian, cohort vs individual and random vs biased sampling. Particular topics include machine learning, Big Data, reproducibility, equitable research and scientific visualization. Students will be provided with foundational and theoretical tools to ensure maximal scientific rigor in their own research by enabling them to think carefully about core issues in experimental design, and about key challenges and controversies that arise in relation to hypothesis testing, statistical inference and data management. Work will be conducted in MatLab, R or Python, and prior experience with one of these tools is highly recommended.

Semester: Spring
Instructors: Professors Dennis Barbour ( and Shelly Cooper (

Additionally, during years 3-4, CCSN students conduct research in Neuroscience. Their thesis committee includes at least one and preferably two faculty members from a PhD program other than their home program. In addition, CCSN students enhance their career skills through a series of activities, divided in three groups. Each year, each student is involved in some (not all) of these activities.

Mentoring Junior Students

Mentoring Junior Students during “Boot Camp”. Prior to beginning the Project Building course, CCSN students participate in a mini-course – fondly referred to as “CCSN boot camp” – that takes place just before the beginning of the Fall semester. The mini-course is designed to prepare students for Project Building, while strengthening a cohesive CCSN group identity and cross-cohort relationships between junior and senior CCSN students. An important goal of the mini-course is to provide senior students the opportunity to give effective oral presentations of the research they developed through Project Building, and to serve as mentors and role models to the junior students. For example, during the “Anatomy of an Experiment” exercises, senior CCSN students serve as brainstorming guides and sounding boards for the junior teams, drawing upon their own prior experiences with these exercises. Subsequently, senior students also serve as judges for providing feedback. on presentation quality and trans-disciplinary cohesiveness.

Mentoring Junior Students in CCSN Project Building. Each 3rd year student in the CCSN pathway works with a 2nd year student during CCSN Project Building. This mentorship experience involves the senior student meeting with the junior student and advising her/him on the development of their Specific Aims. The senior student also serves as one of the reviewers on the junior student’s full NRSA-like application. This peer mentoring program enhances the relationships between students of different cohorts.

Recommendation Letter for Junior CCSN Students. To obtain CCSN funding, students submit an application. The application material includes a recommendation letter written by a senior CCSN student who is familiar with the applicant’s work. Typically, the letter writer is the student serving as mentor in the CCSN Project Building class. 

Leadership Development

CCSN Annual Retreat. The CCSN annual retreat is an important community-building opportunity for faculty and students. The day begins with an ice-breaking event that requires participants to ask each other about their work. It includes one or two faculty keynote address, and shorter student talks that allow senior students to describe model projects. The retreat typically concludes with an “ask anything” panel discussion that often focuses on career development issues, including alternate career paths, and questions on diversity. The annual retreat is organized by an ad hoc committee of senior CCSN students, under the supervision of a CCSN faculty member.

CCSN Speaker Series. The CCSN pathway includes two series of annual lectures from external speakers. The goal of these series is to provide students the opportunity to interact with outstanding leaders in relevant scientific fields. For the first series, referred to as the student speaker series, CCSN students are in charge of selecting the speaker, contacting the speaker to invite them to Washington University, and organizing the visit. In addition, there is a faculty speaker series that occurs each spring. Each year, CCSN faculty nominate potential speakers, and then the CCSN Steering Committee selects the next speaker. The focus is on scientists who conduct the type of trans-disciplinary research relevant to CCSN, with added emphasis on diversity in both topic and speaker. Each CCSN speaker visits for two full days, which allows many opportunities for formal meetings and informal conversations with students on academic and other career-related topics.

Career Development Dinners with CCSN Faculty. Responding to a request from students, we recently started a semi-annual dinner attended by senior CCSN students, CCSN faculty, and selected post-docs from CCSN labs. The goal of these dinners is to promote informal discussions about a wide range of topics relevant to planning and succeeding in a research career. Topics include how and when to apply for a post-doc, how to choose a post-doc advisor, how to establish scientific collaborations, how to approach the academic job market, opportunities for research careers outside of academia, balancing a career in science with family life, diversity in science, etc.