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Be the Change You Want to See: Brain Awareness Week 2014

By Dr. Vania Cao
March 7th, 2014

Are you frustrated by exaggerations or misinterpretations of neuroscience research in popular media?  Do you wish more people understood how awesome neurons or astrocytes or action potentials are?  Do you want to inspire the next great neuroscientist?  You can make a difference!  Find out how in this week’s blog post about Brain Awareness Week, which is just around the corner.

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In a time when humanity is exploring other planets, developing novel methods to treat diseases, and tackling tough new environmental and engineering problems, the importance of scientific knowledge in our modern world cannot be overemphasized.  Yet according to a recently released National Science Foundation poll, a full quarter of the American public polled believes that the sun revolves around the earth.  Other basic science understanding was equally lacking. 

Polls like these serve to remind the scientific community that there is a reason the public can be distrustful of scientific innovation: there is a gap, often substantial, between what the public hears in the media, and the reality of a particular study or experiment.  The good news is we can all easily make a difference in improving the quality of communication between ourselves and laypeople outside of our fields.

I believe that translating our work in neuroscience into information for the public is a vital part of the scientific process.  At the heart of scientific inquiry is the drive to learn more, to find out “what” and “how” and “why”.  This chain of knowledge should not stop at our journals and posters.  Each of us who is invested in neuroscience has the ability, and perhaps even the obligation, to see it passed down the line towards the public in the most accurate and interesting way possible, to the benefit of all.

Brain Awareness Week 2014

One way neuroscientists can help inform the public about novel advances in brain science is to participate in Brain Awareness Week (BAW) events.  BAW is a campaign by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, consisting of a global effort to engage the public and make brain science more accessible.

BAW 2014 will take place from March 10th to 16th, with events hosted by partner organizations spanning elementary schools to neuroscience research societies around the world.  Want to inspire kids?  Join in school programs and demo some interesting neuroscience concepts.  Have a desire to host a forum or give a formal talk?  Participate in a BAW conference or workshop.  BAW events will be taking place in a multitude of sites across the US, as well as internationally, in Uruguay, Pakistan and Nigeria, just to name a few.

Simon Fischweicher, Project Associate for the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, is the Campaign Coordinator for Brain Awareness Week (BAW).  He stresses the importance of individuals and organizations of all kinds reaching out to the public about the latest and greatest in brain science.  Companies at the cutting edge of neuroscience can play an important role along with traditional academic institutions, be it through hosting company lab tours, sending representatives to local science fairs, or using social media to talk about their research. 

“…We believe it is important for these companies to talk about their work and its impact on the present and future of neuroscientific discovery,” he said.

What You Can Gain from Participating in BAW Events

Admittedly, it can be hard to gauge the rewards of participating in an event outside your day-to-day work or lab life.  It takes effort to make extra time in your schedule, travel to a BAW partner site, and to plan and rehearse your talk or workshop. 

So what’s in it for you?

“There are many benefits for participants in Brain Awareness Week,” Fischweicher said.  “Spreading the word about the importance of brain research and its critical role in helping people lead healthier, more productive lives; increasing the visibility of their organization’s work within the broader context of a global campaign; arming their community with the knowledge and information needed to make informed decisions about their health; and, ensuring a future for neuroscience by inspiring the next generation of scientists.”

I almost passed on last year’s Brain Awareness Video Contest hosted by the Society for Neuroscience, a BAW partner.   As a graduate student, I was busy worrying about experiments and if I was going to survive my defense, and seriously doubted I had anything interesting to say.  After all, with so many esteemed experts in my field, and so many textbooks, websites and free educational material out there, what did I have to add?

Then I thought to the time I wished I could have explained to several commenters on an internet article that recording neural activity (“mind reading” in neuroscience terms), came nowhere close to the kind of thought-police “mind reading” they were arguing about.  I decided this was my chance to do just that: take a dangerously oversimplified message about a useful neuroscience research technique, and attempt to better explain how it really works.

Although my video ended up tying for 2nd place in that SfN BAW video contest, this accolade was just icing on the cake.  The process of researching and making the video, and knowing that it may help educate viewers about neural recordings and population coding, made my BAW participation extremely satisfying. 

After this experience, I see three important benefits for BAW participants:

  1. You can make a difference by sharing what you know.  If you are disturbed when a study is not interpreted correctly, or when someone is profiting from misleading information, you can make an impact by communicating accurate information in a clear and engaging fashion.
  2. You improve your own communication skills.  The world of loner, anti-social science is quickly changing in our increasingly collaborative research environments.  Practicing and honing your communication skills by prepping for a BAW event is a great way to test just how deeply you know your field, and how well you convey information to someone else.
  3. You gain transferrable skills and networks.  If you are exploring a range of career options for yourself, both within and beyond the lab bench, having a track record of science outreach, published writing and speaking engagements can be invaluable.  The human network you build through these events may also one day serve you well on your path towards your own career goals.

How Can You Get Involved?

Fischweicher offers some inventive suggestions for how neuroscientists and others can get started with BAW.  “Rather than a lecture, try a lively panel discussion or movie,” he said.  “Or, get creative with the venue—some Brain Awareness Week partners organize lectures in their local pub.  If children are involved, include hands-on activities, experiments, and games, and distribute fun brain gear as prizes for participating.  People are fascinated by the brain.  Sometimes it just requires creative presentation to produce this fascination.”

For more information about Brain Awareness Week and the different events you can join, check out Dana Foundation’s International BAW Calendar of Events.  Share how you’re getting involved in spreading awareness of the brain!

The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of Inscopix.

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