Ask Peggy Mason, PhD, professor of neurobiology, anything. Ask her about her research on the neuroscience of empathy (spoiler: rats have empathy!). Ask her what it’s like to run her upcoming free, massively open online course on neuroscience for the lay-person, where more than 31,000 students are already enrolled. Ask her what she means when she refers to herself as a “neuro-evangelist.”
Just click here and join her as she hosts an AMA (ask me anything) today, at the science section of the social media site Reddit.
As a researcher, Mason spent decades studying the underlying biology of pain. More recently, she’s turned her attention to the neuroscience of empathy. In 2011, Mason and her colleagues demonstrated the first evidence of empathy in rodents. They found that rats would repeatedly free trapped companions, even when given choice of chocolate instead. In January of this year, they showed that rats will only extend this empathy to rats of a ‘type’ that they have previously interacted with.
Now, she appears to be exploring new frontiers as a teacher as well. After decades of teaching neuroscience to students at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, Mason is embarking on a completely different experience: teaching neurobiology to anyone, and everyone.
Beginning Monday, April 28th, she’s launching a free, massively open online course (MOOC), titled ‘Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life.” And it includes what may become the world’s largest memory experiment. Offered by UChicago in partnership with the education company Coursera, Mason has designed the 10-week course for people from all walks of life who are interested in the workings of the brain and the nervous system. In fact, the conductor on her commuter train has signed up for the course.
“If I’m going to get Jeff to watch this course when he gets home, it better be bloody interesting,” Mason said. “I better have a reason why I talk about what I talk about. It better engage people. It better make a difference to them.”
Mason had never heard of a MOOC until she had been invited to give one. But after reading up about them for one entire night, she became fascinated by the concept.
“Learning is the way forward for the world,” Mason said. “It’s an amazing thing that we can make learning available to people regardless of geography, regardless of ability to pay, regardless of ability to take some entry test, they just want to learn.
“The MOOC is an amazing platform for me as a neuro-evangelist. When I wake up in the morning, I see neurobiology around me all the time. To be able to take the mystery out of the nervous system for the general public is a major opportunity for me.”
Mason is the author of a textbook, Medical Neurobiology (Oxford University Press, 2011), which introduces medical students to the fundamentals of the nervous system as it relates to the practice of medicine and human health. She also writes a blog, The Brain is Sooooo Cool! in which she explains how the brain does what it does, and tweets about related matters via @neuroMOOC.
The course primarily will cover neuroanatomy, neural communication, and neural systems. Mason will supplement her online lectures with discussions of the underlying neurology of topics that her students select from current events or YouTube videos.
Enrollment for Mason’s course has reached 31,000 and climbing. Her MOOC students will be able to participate in the memory experiment, which will begin with the second 5-minute segment of the course.
“I anticipate that we will get it credited as the largest memory experiment ever performed,” Mason said, via the Guinness Book of World Records. “It’s very simple. People just have to listen to one 5-minute segment and then answer an e-mail.” No further participation in the course is required. “In that way the students can contribute to human knowledge. We’re going to learn something from that experiment.”
Enrollment stays open. To sign up, visit www.coursera.org/course/neurobio. And check out the video below for a short, behind the scenes look of a MOOC in progress!