​Cognitive, Computational and Systems Neuroscience Pathway

 In recent years, the boundaries that traditionally divided brain research in departments of Psychology, Neurobiology and Biomedical Engineering have blurred. To train the next generation of top-flight brain scientists, Washington University has developed an integrated curriculum that provides graduate students with the training and resources to become leaders in this interdisciplinary field.

The Cognitive, Computational and Systems Neuroscience (CCSN) Pathway is a specialized curriculum available to students pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience, Psychology, Biomedical Engineering, or other brain-related discipline at Washington University (including students in the Medical Scientist Training Program). The CCSN Pathway is not a separate degree-granting program, and CCSN students must fulfill all of the degree requirements of their home programs.

The CCSN Pathway provides an integrated curriculum that is compatible with course-scheduling constraints in the home degree-granting programs. The curriculum is challenging and is designed to help students tackle problems using an interdisciplinary approach.

The CCSN Pathway develops in two phases. In Phase 1 (years 1-2), students take 5 common courses (at least one of which fulfills a requirement in the home PhD program). Through these courses, students extend their basic training beyond their original field, participate in inter-disciplinary discussions, and build a trans-disciplinary research project.

In Phase 2 (years 3-4), CCSN students conduct research in neuroscience and enhance their scientific skills through a series of career development activities, including leading class discussions, mentoring junior CCSN students, organizing and participating in immersive encounters with external speakers, presenting at a CCSN seminar series, and taking part in informal dinners with CCSN faculty. Through these activities, CCSN students acquire leadership skills, build relationships within the community, and network with experts in the field.

Throughout the Pathway, CCSN students participate to community outreach activities promoted by the St. Louis Neuroscience Outreach Program.​

Phase 1: CCSN Courses

Science of Behavior (L33 PSYCH 6556 / L41 BIOL 5665)

The primary function of nervous systems is to control behavior. Understanding the links between brain and behavior requires an understanding of cognition—the computations performed by the brain, as well as the algorithms underlying those computations and the physical substrates that implement those algorithms. The goal of this course is to introduce students to the tools, concepts, and techniques for the experimental study of cognition and behavior in humans and nonhuman animals. We will focus on cognitive capacities that are well-developed in humans and can be compared with those of other species, to develop an understanding of how evolution shapes cognition and behavior. Students who complete this course will be able to ask questions and form hypotheses about the computations and algorithms underlying cognition and behavior, and to design experiments that test these hypotheses.

Semester: Fall year 1
Instructors: Professors Jeff Zacks (jzacks@wustl.edu) and Bruce Carlson (carlson.bruce@wustl.edu)

Neural Systems (L41 BIOL 5651)

The goal of this course is to ensure that all CCSN students have grounding in systems-level neurobiology and neuroanatomy. This course was originally a program-specific course devoted to students in the Neuroscience Program, often with single digit class sizes. Over the last 15 years, it has been adapted (in no small part because of CCSN) to be a richer, broader course that services many needs (CCSN students; and non-CCSN students from other PhD programs including Psychology, Engineering, Computer Science, Physics, Movement Science, etc.). Topic areas include: development and organization of the brain; sensory coding and plasticity; neural correlates of perception; circadian rhythms and sleep; motor control; sensorimotor transformations; decision making; navigation; emotion; learning and memory; and language. The course consists of lectures by a small group of faculty, hands-on laboratory work, and discussion sections. Weekly laboratory experiences include human brain dissections, histological examination of brain tissue, physiology labs on oculomotor control, nerve conduction and sensory-motor coding, along with demonstrations of current research methods in various laboratories.

Semester: Spring year 1
Course master: Professor Larry Snyder (lsnyder@wustl.edu) 

Biological Neural Computation (BME 572 / L41 BIOL 5657)

The overarching aim of this course is to ensure all CCSN students share core knowledge of the computations performed in the nervous system, and foundational methods for using formal models to analyze and interpret these computations. This course was originally created for CCSN, but it is now attended by many non-CCSN students. The course is organized around three major sub-goals: (1) to integrate previous math, physical science, biology and engineering studies into a rigorous investigation of the quantitative foundations of neurophysiology; (2) to provide students with quantitative tools essential for systems-level investigation of neural circuits; and (3) to introduce fundamental pattern recognition and machine learning concepts required for neural data analysis. Topics covered include: phase-plane analysis, reduction of Hodgkin-Huxley equations, models of neural circuits, plasticity and learning, artificial neural networks, and pattern recognition & machine learning algorithms for analyzing neural data. Computations performed by neural circuits and population-level encoding/decoding are particularly emphasized. For non-engineers, conceptual understanding, evaluation and selection of appropriate neural data analysis technique is stressed. Through interaction with previous CCSN cohorts, particularly those from the Psychology program, CCSN has developed two enrichments: a “crash course” in Matlab programming prior to the start of the term (see below) and a programming tutor specifically dedicated to Biological Neural Computation.

Semester: Spring year 1
Instructor: Professor Barani Raman (barani@wustl.edu) 

Advanced CCSN (L33 PSYCH 519 / L41 BIOL 5619)

The goal of this course is to develop critical thinking and analysis skills in the context of a series of inter-disciplinary, Socratically structured, case studies. Although the great majority of students in Advanced CCSN are from the three parent programs, non-CCSN students from other PhD programs (e.g., Physics and the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology program) occasionally take the course. Case study topics build upon the knowledge gained in the three 1st year courses and highlight the benefits of combining behavioral, physiological, and computational approaches in Systems Neuroscience. The goal is not to provide broad coverage of topic areas, but rather to delve deeply into a smaller set of topics where integration of the three approaches have proven fruitful and instructive. The course comprises multiple modules that provide an in-depth analysis of both classic topics and new cutting-edge trends in a broad range of research areas. Recent modules include visual motion processing, neurogenetics, and network neuroscience. In each module, expert faculty (including senior investigators and junior scientists) guide students in extensive discussion of both foundational research articles and novel, state-of-the-art findings. The course emphasizes group interactions and student self-discovery of key concepts, challenges, and controversies. Throughout the semester, students form small groups to develop and present novel, integrative and multi-level grant-style proposals that build upon the modules as inspiration. At the end of the semester, students synthesize information from the course in the form of a new research proposal or critical review as a final paper, which provides a nice transition into the CCSN Project Building course.

Semester: Fall year 2. Boot camp is scheduled in the last two weeks of August.
Course master: Professor Todd Braver (tbraver@wustl.edu) 

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

CCSN project building is the capstone of the CCSN pathway coursework. The goals of this course are to develop an 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: Spring year 2
Course master: Professor Deanna Barch (dbarch@wustl.edu​)

​Phase 2: Activities

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.

Teaching and Lecturing

CCSN Seminar Series. This series is organized by CCSN students and attended only by students. Senior CCSN students present their current research projects and receive feedback on their work from outside perspectives, including students from other PhD programs. For junior students, these seminars are an opportunity to learn about current research and to interact with senior students.

Leading Discussions in Advanced CCSN. As described above, the course Advanced CCSN is divided into 5-7 modules of 1-2 weeks each. Each module focuses on an area of Neuroscience that has seen significant advances in recent years. In addition to faculty experts, senior CCSN students will lead selected paper discussions, when their research focuses on the techniques or topics at hand.

Programming Crash Course. CCSN provides an intensive Matlab training course as an adjunct to Biological Neural Computation for students with little programming experience. The course was initiated and is staffed by advanced CCSN graduate students (years 3-4).

Mentoring Junior Students

Matlab Mentor for Biological Neural Computation. Along with the programming crash course, we also introduced a programming mentor specifically dedicated to CCSN students enrolled in Biological Neural Computation. The Matlab mentor is a senior CCSN student, and typically the same student serving as instructor in the programming crash course.

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.

CCSN Administration

Director: Camillo Padoa-Schioppa (camillo@wustl.edu)

Co-Director: Todd Braver (tbraver@wustl.edu​)

Steering Committee:

Martha Bagnall
Dennis Barbour
Deanna Barch
Bruce Carlson
ShiNung Ching
Tammy Hershey
Dan Moran
Steve Petersen
Barani Raman
Larry Snyder
Jeff Zacks
Nicole Seider (student)
Brent Rappaport (student)
Nathan Anderson (student)

Administrative staff:

Laura Williams
Director of Finance & Administration

Carmen Horn
Program Coordinator

External advisory board:

Dora Angelaki, PhD. (NYU)
Randy Buckner, PhD. (Harvard)
Peter Dayan, PhD. (University College London)
Aaron Bobick, PhD (Washington University)
Robyn Klein, MD, PhD (Washington University)
Roddy Roediger, PhD (Washington University)

CCSN Faculty

CCSN Fellowships

CCSN students can apply for 1-2 year fellowships. Fellowships are awarded on a competitive basis. To obtain funding, CCSN students submit an application, which includes a copy of the transcripts, a 500 word essay describing how the planned research integrates conceptual perspectives and research approaches from different disciplines, a support letter from the mentor, and a support letter written by a senior CCSN student who is familiar with the applicant's work. Applications for CCSN funding are accepted annually and reviewed by a subcommittee drawn from the Steering Committee and including the CCSN Directors.

Fellowships are awarded first and foremost based on research interests, class performance and participation in the various activities of the CCSN pathway. Additionally, the committee aims to achieve balance across the parent PhD programs, and to build a diverse cohort.

Questions should be directed to CCSN Directors Camillo Padoa-Schioppa (camillo@wustl.edu) or Todd Braver (tbraver@wustl.edu​).​

Travel Awards

​​The CCSN program fosters student development beyond their departmental training to broaden and improve the science accomplished during doctoral research. To further this central mission, the CCSN Pathway will support all CCSN students who request a one-time travel allowance up to $500 to attend or present at conferences or for other travel that supports their research career. Eligible students must have completed Project Building and have up-to-date information in the CCSN database including publications, progress reports, status of graduate coursew​ork, honors, fellowships and grants. The travel allowance should be requested prior to travel, while in student status. One-page requests should be sent to Laura Williams at laura.williams@wustl.edu with the following information:

  • Student name, academic program, mentor/advisor, Project Building completion date
  • A brief summary of your participation in CCSN activities or service on committees
  • Name, date(s) and location of conference or purpose of trip (if other than a conference)
  • Description of the work that will be presented or discussed
  • Statement on how the travel will further your science, education or career
​The CCSN Directors will review all requests and students will be notified promptly upon review. Questions should be directed to Laura Williams.​

Current Students

Ben Acland (NS)​
​Nathan Anderson (PBS)​
Moises Arriaga (NS)
​Nikhil Chandra (BME)
​Shelly Cooper (PBS)
​Jennifer Crawford (PBS)
​Abishek Dey (PBS)
Keith Dyson (BME)​
​Andrew Fishell (NS)
​Michael Freund (P​BS)
​Zoe Hawks (PBS)
Chuck Holmes (PBS)​
​​Joseph Humphries (BME)
​Jung-Uk Kang (NS)
​Zeran Li (NS)
​Zack Markow (BME)
​Andrew Meier (NS)
Lindsay Michalski (PBS)​
​Peter Millar (PBS) 
Dillan Newbold (NS)​
​Jessica Nicosia (PBS)
​Ashley Nielson (NS)
​Brent Rappaport (PBS)
​Catherine Rongxiang (PBS)
​Tyler Schlichenmeyer (BME)
​Nicole Seider (NS)
​Benjamin Seitzman (NS)
​Weikang Shi (NS)
​Matthew Singh (NS)
​Thomas Spaventa (PBS)
​Marta Stojanovic (PBS)
​Michael Traner (BME)
​Kalyan Tripathy (NS)
​Debbie Yee (PBS)
​Yu-Hua Yeh (PBS)
​Christopher Zerr (PBS)
​Annie Zheng (NS)​

NS = Neuroscience; PBS = Psychological and Brain Sciences; BME = Biomedical Engineering​​​​

Neuroscience Outreach Program

CCSN has historically played and continues to play a central role in community outreach efforts at Washington University. Community outreach activities are not mandatory for CCSN students, but they are strongly encouraged. CCSN students play a critical role in two major annual events: SciFest and NeuroDay. Each year, the Faculty Representative (Erik Herzog) works with the CCSN Outreach Student Coordinator to recruit and train approximately 8-12 CCSN students to create the Amazing Brain Carnival (ABC). At the ABC, graduate students give hands-on research demonstrations, providing them opportunities to interact with public regarding classic neuroscience phenomena and discoveries, while also describing their own research objectives in a related area. These demonstrations are developed over a 6-month period through workshops and instruction with Washington University neuroscientists and St. Louis Science Center staff, and test screenings with high school students and teachers. The end result is an exhibit, designed like a big-top circus, with stations representing brain regions that the public visits. At each station, the public meets a graduate student who integrates their research into the themes of the ABC (e.g. regionalization of function to brain areas, processes of recovery from brain injury, mechanisms of neural development and plasticity, designs for new brain-computer interfaces, etc.). Students present the ABC at SciFest (in October) and NeuroDay (in March) each year. They contact between 1,500 and 4,500 visitors at each event.

The CCSN Outreach Program is part of a larger Neuroscience Pipeline that includes students studying the brain in high school, college, graduate school, and as postdoctoral fellows. Through near-peer mentoring experiences, CCSN students share their enthusiasm for and expertise in neuroscience with high school students studying for the St. Louis Area Brain Bee and with Synapse, the student group dedicated to neuroscience opportunities for undergraduates. In many ways, presenting neuroscience topics to an audience of non-scientists requires the same skills necessary to discuss research with scientists from different disciplines. Thus community outreach efforts are synergistic with other components of the CCSN pathway.

Past Invited Speakers

Speaker Date of Talk

Leslie Ungerleider, PhD


Anthony Movshon, PhD


Larry Abbott, PhD


William Newsome, PhD


Emery Brown, MD, PhD


Sabine Kastner, MD, PhD


Yiel Niv, PhD


Todd Maddox, PhD


Lynn Nadel, PhD


David Leopold, PhD


Michael Frank, PhD


Peter Dyan, PhD


Jacqueline Gottlieb, PhD​


Greg DeAngelis, PhD


Philip Sabes, PhD


Josh Tenenbaum, PhD


Nick Turk-Browne, PhD


Elizabeth Spelke, PhD


Molly Crockett, PhD


Adrienne Fairhall


Iain Couzin


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