Neuroscientists spread love of science at McWane during Brain Awareness Week

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As UAB graduate student Matthew Rice turned the object in his hand and spoke, first-grader Jeffrey Youngson hung on every word.

What does that do? What’s a hormone? What color is RNA? Youngson couldn’t get his questions out fast enough. And when Rice let him hold the dissected sheep brain in his hands, Youngson turned to his mother. “I got to hold it,” he told her.

Youngson was among hundreds of students to visit the McWane Science Center during spring break March 14-18. He found his way to the UAB GENEius Lab at McWane where graduate students hosted Brain Awareness Week activities for children in the community.

“Jeffrey has always been very interested in science,” says his mother Susie Youngson. “It started with space and went into rocks. He loves math; we really came for Pi Day, but when I saw this, I had to bring him in here.”

Youngson was impressed as Rice told him how a sheep brain worked and how it was similar to a human brain.

“It was really cool,” Youngson said. “I really like mathematics and science. I like to learn about the human body. I didn’t know there was two kinds of brain matter — the gray matter and the white matter.”

“I didn’t know that either,” his mom added.

Brain Awareness Week (BAW) is the global campaign to increase public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research. The Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research through grants and educates the public about the successes and potential of brain research, founded the worldwide event. The Society of Neuroscience also organizes BAW events. Every March BAW unites the efforts of organizations worldwide in a weeklong celebration of the brain.

During the BAW campaign, partners organize activities to educate and excite people of all ages about the brain and brain research. UAB began its BAW outreach three years ago under the direction of Sharday Ewell, now a fourth-year graduate student in neurobiology. She approached the McWane Center about hosting the event. Three years later, the activities continues to grow, and, more important, area children get an opportunity to see that science is fun and that a career in the field is possible.

“I’m in neuroscience today because I attended a BAW event when I was in middle school,” Ewell says. “It’s just so important to turn these kids on to science early. We need to show them it’s not this boring thing or this complicated thing or something to be feared. Science is all around us. It’s fun to show them that they’re actually scientists in their everyday life. They have to form hypotheses whether they realize it or not. If we can get through to them through an event like this, I think we’ve done our job.”

UAB students conducted a series of learning activities throughout the day for McWane Center visitors. They dissected a sheep brain and cow eye — and even a diseased human brain — and held several other interactive activities to describe how the senses work.

“The students did an amazing job organizing this event, and all of the faculty are incredibly proud of them,” says Kristina Visscher, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and faculty volunteer. “Sharday spearheaded this effort, and she is passionate about bringing science education to the community. She did a tremendous job of galvanizing and organizing a large group of volunteers for this effort.”

Visscher says she and other faculty and student volunteers enjoy the opportunity to share neuroscience with children and parents in the community. She says the interaction is energizing and fun.

“BAW is a great event for researchers because we tend to spend a lot of time in the lab, and it’s easy to lose sight of how our neuroscience research fits into the bigger picture,” Visscher says. “Talking with people from the community helps us to put our field into this big-picture context and forces scientists to step back and reframe the way we normally talk about our work.”

Chandler Bibb, spokeswoman for the McWane Center, says BAW is always popular among their visitors.

“We look forward to this event every year at McWane,” Bibb says. “The activities that the UAB students come up with are amazing and very hands-on. Experiencing a brain dissection or examining a cow eyeball is not something our visitors will ever forget. A mother of a young girl told us last year that after dissecting a sheep’s brain with UAB students at McWane her daughter told her on the way home she wanted to be a doctor. That’s the kind of excitement about science we hope to inspire in all of our visitors and UAB helps us do that.”

That’s also a key goal for Frankie Heyward, second-year neuroscience graduate student in David Sweatt’s, Ph.D., laboratory. Heyward wants to show children how fun and interesting science can be and educate them and their parents about the progress and promise of brain research.

“Too often people underappreciate, avoid — or worse — fear neuroscience because they simply don’t understand how it relates to them and the benefits of the research being conducted,” Heyward says. “We seek to quell any anxiety regarding neuroscience research and inspire children to become interested in it at a young age.”

Heyward volunteered to be a part of BAW in part to reach out to minority children. Heyward, a Philadelphia native, grew up with a father who told him never to sell himself short and to aspire to be whatever he wanted to be. Heyward fell in love with science, and now he wants to inspire other minority children.

“There are some children that do not fully buy into the notion that they, too, can become scientists because they don’t see any scientists who look like them,” he says. “The BAW volunteers are an amalgamation of different skin tones and gender. Hopefully, the children we were able to interact with walked away with the belief that neuroscience is something they can get excited about and a profession in which they can contribute.”

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