Have you ever had fun getting dizzy by spinning around? Ever thought of what ears have to do with getting dizzy? Ears are for hearing, right?
When you have a stuffy nose, whatever you eat seems bland and tasteless. What does your nose have to do with taste? We taste food with our tongues and our noses are for smelling, right?
These are just a few of the many complex concepts of how the brain and other parts of our bodies coordinate to keep functioning. Through easy-to-understand demonstrations and activities, these and several other complexities of the brain were adeptly simplified and communicated to our young visitors at Mount Sinai by members of Sinai Neuroscience Outreach Program (SNOP) and their volunteers during the first “Brain Awareness Fair” on March 12th, 2013.
The event was a part of a larger umbrella of events called “braiNY,” organized throughout New York City. Under the Greater NYC chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, these events are a joint effort by universities, museums, and cultural organizations to showcase the wonders and mysteries of the brain, to New Yorkers of all ages. These and other events in over 82 countries are part of “Brain Awareness Week,” a global campaign sponsored by the Dana Foundation.
Lauren Friedman, a neuroscience PhD student, who took the initiative to start SNOP in 2011, presides over the program. For two years the program focused mostly on visiting the area schools and leading hands-on activities about the brain. With encouragement and support from Dr. Eric J Nestler, Chair, Department of Neuroscience and other faculty, this year Lauren and her team collaborated with other organizations around the city and decided to have a bigger event of their own.
On the day of the event, about 100 visitors, including K-12 students and their parents and teachers, were welcomed by highly enthusiastic experts in the fields of Neuroscience and novices alike at their activity booths with names as snappy as “Dizzy Izzy” and as explanotary as “Brain Injury Association.” There, students learned about how the brain is organized and functions and how important it is to protect our brain and spinal cord from injuries.
At one of the front stations was Janyce Wollney from Brain Injury Association of New York State. Guiding through the details on the underside of a turtle shell, she educated the students on how a brain is protected inside the skull and how accidents can lead to serious brain injuries, which may result in the loss of one or more of the many awesome functions of the brain. The students then proceeded to learn more about the brain throughout the fair.
The “Build-A-Brain” booth taught the basics of neuroscience; how brain cells called neurons interconnect to form long chains of neurons that reach from various sensory organs to the brain and convey signals. And how these and other signals are processed by different parts of task-specialized brain regions. With tools as simple as colorful pipe cleaners, the organizers demonstrated to students how a neuron might look at the microscopic scale. By coloring different brain regions on printed sheets, the students not only made brain hats, but also learned where in the brain different regions that perform specific tasks like vision, hearing, balancing, etc are located.
At another exhibit, aptly named “Animal Brains,” and perhaps one of the most popular stations, preserved brains from animals as small as a rat and big as a fin whale were on display for the young visitors to appreciate. They then had to guess the animal they belonged to. Presenters Bridget Wicinski and Neha Uppal enthusiastically explained to students how the brain shapes and sizes roughly match the sizes of the animals and the shapes of their skulls. “I learned about the olfactory bulb and how it is different in animals that rely on the sense of smell.” says Selale Gunal, a 5th grader from PS77, after visiting the booth. She would like to dissect a brain when she comes again next year, she says. Her sister Eda, a 4th grader from the same school would like to see a whole human brain instead of the half that was on display this year. Bridget, who takes these brains to classroom outreach activities year-round, is looking forward to being more involved next year and giving the brain exhibit an evolutionary twist.
At various other exhibits, presenters taught students about optical illusions and color vision, skin conductance and taste, balance, learning and memory formation, what the insides of a brain looks like, and how scientists can now decode activities of just one neuron from the billions of others.
Catering more to the accompanying teachers and parents, were informative booths like “Ask a Psychiatrist,” and Alzheimer’s Association. At the “Meet the Experts,” booth, led by faculty members, Drs. Yasmin Hurd, Mark Baxter, Ting Wang, and Miguel A. Gama Sosa, the experts provided answers to questions on topics such as aging, autism, brain trauma, addiction, learning and memory formation, dementia, etc.
Organizers and volunteers came from all walks of life at Sinai; students, postdocs, faculty, research assistants, and from outside. Jason Grant, a middle school teacher from the Bronx with a growing interest in neuroscience, was busy building brains with the students. Taka, an exchange medical student from Japan made use of this opportunity to mix with local kids and learn about of American education and outreach. Diverse as they might be, all these “braiNY” people have one thing common; They all enjoyed communicating science to the non-science visitors.
For the organizers, it wasn’t just this one day of working hard. Event preparations began more than six months before. To raise the funds, the organizers even held bake sales of brainy bites. Twice! SNOP members and Brain Awareness Fair co-coordinators, Sarah Motley and Ashley Russo helped in all aspects of planning the event. Veronica Szarejko from Digital Media Center, printed flyers, posters, and sign boards for the event. The Dana Foundation provided funding for supplies through their Dana Alliance Lending Library program, a national shared resource of scientific supplies for schools. The Center for Excellence in Youth Education (CEYE) that organizes one-day visits or year-round biotechnology classes and research volunteering opportunities for the area school students, also helped organize the student visitors for the event.
Cesar Moreno, a neuroscience PhD student and SNOP member, likes to capture the awe and amazement that comes across faces of the kids engaged in learning subjects as cool as the brain. The “Brain Awareness Fair” gave him the opportunity to do just that. With a camera around his neck, curious students and enthusiastic presenters all around, and engaging activities going on all the time, Cesar hardly had a moment to spare.