Stuart Firestein

Mar 2021

The first time I asked a question in this class, it was in regards to color blindness, the particular question being: may there have been an advantage to males in being more prone to colorblindness during our evolutionary history. Even though color blindness, or the forms we tend to think of, are Y-linked, it is interesting that it did not evolve via a different mechanism in females (I believe green/red color blindness is what I asked about specifically--females can be colorblind, just very rarely and not via the Y-linked version). The trait of colorblindness seems odd to, shall we say, be kept in the gene pool. What are your thoughts on this? (I asked...) His reply?: "What a dumb question to ask, I mean that's like astrology (??) I mean like, you could come up with any answer and it's all astrology. Moving on." So, my question about why male color blindness may have remained in the gene pool, and why it may have not have evolved independently in females, is akin to a belief that moving bodies in space affect my love life and what happens throughout my day? I was not asking even for an answer (because who knows?), but perhaps a conjecture based on what we know about how color vision assists us in our day-to-day lives, and how not having it may offer some advantages in certain instances. Astrology? Are you kidding? My point: Just because you have a ted talk, it doesn't mean you're bright, a good teacher, or a considerate person who doesn't seek to put a student down in class because she asked a question that you couldn't answer immediately, and you didn't want to appear stupid. Which he is. This "astrology" girl ended up with an A in the class and is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT's computational biology program. This is just one example of how Columbia, and other universities in general, do not pick good candidates for their intro classes, and quite frankly, do not care about the caliber of a teacher when selecting those to teach introductory courses. This class was my biggest disappointment. And five years later, I still remember this moment so vividly that I had to write it somewhere.

Jan 2021

Midterms based on the text and final based on reading primary literature. There were some technical challenges with Zoom, but Prof. Firestein did his best to be engaging and cover the portions of the text he thought were lacking. READ THE TEXT. Watch YouTube videos. Exams are entirely multiple choice. Don't let him fool you, the first midterm is the easiest and the last midterm has concepts that even he messes up sometimes. Do yourself a favor and treat the first two midterms like a final, drop the third (don't even bother taking it), and use the time you would have spent studying for the third midterm probing the TA's about the final. You can thank me later. The class is mandatory, so idk what else to tell you.

May 2017

This class is awesome!! It is normally only open to seniors but if you talk to professor Firestein then you can get in no matter what grade you are in. The seminars are super interesting and he brings in very cool guests to listen to. Even if you're not a science major, you will enjoy this. It is also an easy A if you do the work and go to class. Since it only meets 10 times in the whole semester, attendance is MANDATORY. One class near the end of the semester only 10 students showed up and he made a sign in sheet and all of the students that didn't come had to do extra work to get an A. Also Stuart is the man. He is so funny and honestly makes the 2 hour seminars fly by.

Jan 2012

Standard uber-mediocre cellular neurobio course - Nothing exceptional at all about any of the lecturers (Zafir is, how should I put it, "colorful", Jessica is annoying and misleading about what will actually be on her test, and Firestein is funny and engaging, but has to cover way too much material in too little time, and is solid at doing so) Jessica ran the course, and and in her midterm (the second one) she asked for very minute details as opposed to testing concepts - Memorize all your shit, and don't think hard, they will not test you deeply on concepts. Take the first two tests - The third is on a shitload of material. Class is curved to a B, so beware. If you're a neurscience major, you have no choice - Otherwise, steer clear.

Jan 2012

Worst class to take. The teaching was horrible and the reviews for exams were useless. Granted everyone was raving about the class, it was just horrible. there is no curve and they expect you to know so much and spit back all the information in such little time. the three professor for one lecture thing sucks. each professor had a different style of teaching, so as soon as you get used to one you have the next one coming in. Waste of time. I was be cautious when taking the class because it will kill you GPA.

Jan 2012

So here's the break down as I see it. Zafir pretty funny and decent lecturer a little haphazard. Jessica a soulless robot of a woman who kept awkwardly chatting up this one kid in the front of the class during lecture. Stuart was either non existent or hilarious and useless when he did lecture. Overall I was very disappointed in what could have been a very interesting course. I'm an engineer and so the first part of the course which is a little mathier than most bio/neuroscience/pre-med kids like was pretty easy, but the what should've been the most interesting parts of the course (the latter 2/3) were taught so poorly it was hard to enjoy it. So, basically the most mediocrely mediocre course for a very interesting field of study.

Dec 2011

I feel bad writing that this class is taught by Firestein. It's not. It's taught by Zafir and Brann. That said, I want to review Firestein because he was absolutely useless. If I wanted comedy, I would have bought tickets to a comedy club which would have been cheaper than my 40k tuition. Firestein uses his humor to cover up his lack of knowledge about what he had to teach us. He only taught the last third of the class (if that, he missed a couple lectures there too that Brann had to fill in), and LITERALLY during the last two classes he would not know what he was talking about and apologize and then TELL US TO READ THE TEXTBOOK. Yes, we can do that. Thank you very much Professor Firestein. But if we wanted clarification on any concepts (olfaction and proprioception gets pretty confusing), he was lacking in that. His lectures were confusing and not helpful and the multiple lecturers with different styles of teaching made up a very fragmented and confusing experience with Neurobio 1. eh, it's required. what can ya do...

May 2010

In all of college I have not had a course with a larger disparity between expectations and fulfillment. The course is billed as an exploration of what scientists don't know—the "real" Frontiers of Science, if you will. I was expecting a small, intimate discussion with leading scientists about the problems in their fields, the questions they would like answered and how those answers would change their fields. I was expecting a discussion of those problems and of the general problems in science today. Instead, we mostly got an "interview" between Firestein and the guest scientist of the week with little time for Q/A or discussion. Ignorance was run as seminar, with 2-3 weeks of guests, followed by an off-week where we talked about the guests and about how they related to bigger problems in science. The guest lecturers were decent most of the time (although a few stand out as particularly awful—including a MAGICIAN that had us doing magic tricks and a physicist who came to talk to us about Phenomenology) and we did learn a bit about different fields—but most people's lack of a science background made it difficult, if not impossible, to delve into the subject matter in such a way as to really allow us to comprehend the problems they were describing. This is not really Firestein's fault, but it suggests that the course should probably be limited to at least people with science majors and that the guest lecturer should be vetted a little more closely to make sure they have profound things to say. The off-weeks were what really stood out as awful and having unrealized potential. This was for two reasons. First, Firestein loved to dominate conversation. Students would ask questions or bring up topics for discussion and he would give his thoughts for, sometimes, tens of minutes—often covering most of the points that would make for good discussion. Instead of letting students discuss and maintain an organic conversation, most of the conversation went through him. This is not the right way to run a seminar, but it probably relates to the second problem. The class was too big (>60 I believe) and I'm sorry to say this about classmates, but there were a number of students who should not have been in the class. They raised inane or crazy questions that only served to derail conversation. Often they raised questions attacking the premises of the scientific project or medicine and I had to hold myself back from crying or, usually, slamming my head against the table. I think that Firestein often had to deal with those people, which prevented more reasonable organic conversations from happening. Most students did not say a single word all semester and by the third week only about 30 people were showing up for class. I suspect that the character of the class could be improved if a few things changed for next year: 1. Restrict the course to only those students who have sufficient science background to understand the scientific project. The Biology department does not have any senior seminars—this course could be a great candidate for that. Even if it were open to all science-majors it could be a great course. 2. Restrict the course size to no more than 25 students and require essays to gain entrance (as is done in some history seminars). 3. Require student participation—this means Firestein needs to take more of a backseat approach to the discussion and let us argue and debate the points we find interesting—not just listen to him talk endlessly about his points of view. Unfortunately, Ignorance was too big, too vague, not taken seriously by students and dominated by Firestein's strong personality. All the course succeeded in doing was entertaining us for a couple hours a week—but more often it made some of us want to bang our heads against the wall. In short: only take this class if student entrance is restricted in some way. That will probably go a long way to improving the course. Based on my experience, I can't recommend the course whatsoever.

Jan 2010

Neurobiology with Prof. Firestein was a wonderful experience, notwithstanding the first couple of weeks. I had some experience with Prof. Firestein before entering the class, as he taught a couple of Frontiers lectures as well as three Intro Bio II lectures. Knowing that the former is a required class and the latter a prerequisite for Neurobio, I wondered why he would continue to begin his lectures with the same quotes - "the brain is the thing we think we think with" and "the brain is my second-most favorite organ". I guess I still chuckled after hearing them the third time around. That was pretty much the theme of the first lectures: we discussed the same old principles of action potentials and neuronal anatomy that I had learned four times before in Mind Brain and Behavior, Science of Psych, Frontiers, and Intro Bio. Although I know Prof. Firestein just wanted to make sure that we had a solid foundation in the basic principles of Neurobiology, I don't think it was completely necessary to devoting entire lectures on material previously covered in prerequisite classes. Isn't that the purpose of having prereqs? That being said, once we cleared the first exam, the class became much more enjoyable and informative. Prof. Firestein uses his sterling sense of humor to keep the class flowing. I think the majority of the students came to lecture, were focused and not bored by the class. Although it was at times frustrating, I think the most valuable aspect of the class was the way it incorporated scientific papers into its structure. Although I came into the class with experience researching papers on pubmed and had read plenty of papers before, I had never had to delve into the methods and structure of experiments the way Prof. Firestein's tests made me. Although it was a little frustrating that the final involved only papers, I ultimately emerged from the class with a greater understanding of how to work with the primary literature that I will surely carry with me long after I have forgotten what exactly a Pacinian corpuscle does.

May 2008

Stuart is God. He is hilarious and his lectures were so fun. This class is hard, but manageable. Don't be daunted by the physics in the first part-just memorize it and it will be ok. Yiang of course has it hard, since he comes after Stuart and also lectures on less interesting subjects (Synapses basically). The book is phenomenal (Principles of Neural Science). The final will kill you. Just a warning... i think it is so impossible because it is written by TAs. It is comprised of 6 primary research articles, on which random questions are asked. These can't be discussed in recitation or with any of the TAs, so you are on your own. Questions are scattered throughout the exam (as in, they may ask something about one article and then something else random about another article just to confuse you) and so you have no idea which article they refer to. What is worse, the articles all investigate very similar problems (taste receptors.) Meaning, the possibility of mixing up methods or designs is very likely.

Jan 2006

Prof. Firestein is a good teacher, and I would definitely take this class with him. He is often funny and makes most concepts fairly clear, so class usually went by pretty quickly. During the semester there were a couple of topics that Prof. Firestein didn't seem so comfortable with, so he didn't do such a great job with those (I think they are usually taught by a different teacher), but other than that he was really very good. The textbook was difficult to read and he knew it, so he didn't really expect us to use it very much. Even though he didn't have official office hours, he was always willing to stay after class and answer questions. The recitation part of this class (reading primary papers) was a little annoying, but not too bad depending on your TA.

Sep 2003

A good class--hard if you have no background in it (intro bio and some physics), but not too bad otherwise if you're willing to spend the time studying and reading the recitation papers. Prof Firestein is great--he keeps the class interested, he's funny, and if he's a little disorganized, it's never a problem. The class (primarily in the recitations) is very good at teaching you to read research papers. Firestein's tests tend to focus on the important concepts rather than nit-picky details. Part of the course is taught by Prof Yang who isn't nearly as interesting, will ask questions requiring detailed knowledge (e.g. how many neurotransmitters are in a vesicle), and writes small on the board, but is tolerable. Both profs provide practice exams before the midterms, so you have some idea what to expect ahead of time.

Jan 2002

Neuroscience is fascinating but this class is Hard. Firestein is a bit disorganized. He is nice, but the other professor who teaches Jiang Yang, or Yang Jiang, whatever his name is, is much more organized, but even harder than Firestein. Jiang Yang requires alot of physics background. It's all in the book, by Kandel, the nobel prize winner, but the information is overwhelming, and the material is difficult. Don't take this unless you are a neuroscience major who must take it. Humanities majors need not even apply. It will be impossible for you.