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14th Annual Brain Education Day: “They start to see graduate students more as neighbors”

March 20, 2023
by Kayla Yup

A dancing cockroach leg could inspire the next generation of neuroscientists.

On Mar. 12, Brain Education Day returned in-person for the first time since 2019. The annual outreach program exposes local middle and high school students to neuroscience. Co-sponsored by Yale Pathways to Science and the Office for Graduate Student Development and Diversity (OGSDD), the event is open to Pathways students in grades 6 to 12. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, previous years’ events were held virtually.

Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program (INP) second-year graduate students Kathy Ayala and Efrat Abramson served as this year’s co-coordinators.

Coming from an underrepresented community, Ayala did not see scientific careers or doctoral degrees as a given. It took coming to college to realize what career opportunities were possible, she said. Ayala and Abramson both emphasized the power of early exposure to STEM.

It’s so important to give people the chance to see all the possibilities of what they can truly do and become.

Efrat Abramson

“Since I immigrated to the US when I was young, I constantly felt so behind on things like college prep and we had to figure it all out so late. With [Brain Education Day], we’re able to expose kids so early to neuroanatomy, human brain imaging, and physiology, so it’s a chance for them to explore things and think about what their passion is on their own timeline,” Abramson said.

This year, 65 Pathways students and around 40 volunteers participated. The event began with an optional College Info Session hosted by OGSDD Senior Associate Dean Michelle Nearon, PhD. The Pathways students then broke off into four rotations, ranging from sheep brain dissection to stack cup competitions using robotic claws.

The Brain-Machine Interface station, led by INP students Tyler Nelson and Ray Vaca, taught Pathways students how electrical signaling works in neural prosthetics. Brain-machine interface is a communication pathway used to translate electrical signals in our brain into commands to move an external device, Nelson explained. The session focused on prosthetics that used the brain to allow people with limited mobility “a degree of control” over their limbs.

A company called Backyard Brains provided a robotic claw prosthetic called “The Claw.” To use the claw, electrodes were placed on a student’s forearm muscles. When the student flexed their hand, the claw moved simultaneously by detecting electrical signals generated by the muscle contraction. Using the claws to compete against each other in a stack cup competition, one student managed to stack the cups into a pyramid in only seven seconds.

“I found that the younger students (middle school) were more interested in using The Claw first-hand, whereas the older groups were fine with not taking a turn, but instead showed more interest in the mechanisms behind the technology,” Vaca said.

Giant cockroaches were the star of the sensory physiology station, led by INP students Evyn Dickinson and Sarah Mohr. This experiment taught students about electrophysiology and action potentials. Volunteers played rock music to stimulate the nerves of the cockroach legs, making them appear to dance.

The neuroanatomy session, led by INP student Leah Harmon, had Pathways students dissect sheep brains. One student said the brain felt like “a mushroom,” according to Ayala. Rick Crouse, PhD, a Yale Pathways Program Administrator, recalled students telling him the brains “really stink.” He encouraged a volunteer to explain to them what they were smelling, to further build on the learning module.

The human brain imaging station, led by INP students Lester Rodriguez and Jean Ye, took students on a tour of Yale’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facilities. Harnessing the power of magnets, scientists can non-invasively study brain activity. Students got to talk with researchers about the technology and test out the mock scanner, which simulated the MRI experience.

The kids had really great questions. Some of them were on par with the questions I asked during my qualifying exam. I was just very impressed by how knowledgeable the kids were [and] inquisitive.

Kathy Ayala

To illustrate the different components of brain imaging research, students also competed to get the highest score on a behavioral task that measures cognitive control. Rodriguez enjoyed seeing students’ enthusiasm as they attempted to break the high score, and hearing their reactions to lying inside the mock scanner. He hopes this event inspires the next generation of diverse neuroscientists.

A highlight for Abramson was students asking her “how did you find your passion?” She also recalled students nodding their heads during demos, expressing when something was “cool,” talking about science with peers, getting excited when talking with volunteers about their field of interest — and the volunteers themselves matching that enthusiasm.

Ayala emphasized the importance of making material accessible to students in science outreach. One example was the event’s faculty talk by assistant professor Trevor Sorrells, PhD, on how mosquitoes hunt humans. Through workshopping, they concluded that Sorrells’ talk would need to explain how the brain and behavior are intertwined — a concept which may be inherent to neuroscientists but not to students.

Crouse noted that neuroscience outreach has traditionally been well represented at Yale. Second year INP students each serve on committees tasked with coordinating either student research talks, student-faculty lunches, journal clubs, or outreach events. He recalled leading the robotic claw session when he was an INP graduate student on the outreach committee.

Crouse encouraged graduate students to reach out to Yale Pathways if they’re interested in volunteering or have ideas for outreach events.

“It’s been more difficult to get volunteers for outreach, recently,” Crouse said. “A lot of people are burnt out, they are trying to prioritize focusing on their school[ing] [...] But seeing what I believe are going to be the shining stars, coming forward, seeing them really blossom in front of the students was very uplighting for me.”

Now on the logistics side of the event, Crouse helps connect students from New Haven, West Haven and Orange public school districts to these opportunities. Through Yale Pathways events like Brain Education Day, he works to foster strong neighborhood connections.

They start to see graduate students more as neighbors, rather than just ‘these Yale people that live next to me

Rick Crouse, PhD

Through scientific outreach, Ayala hopes to bridge the gap between the local New Haven community and Yale, which she said “can feel wider than it should.”

“It's a great way for students and families to feel like they're involved in this institution, and they're gaining the resources from this institution, which they should be,” Ayala said. “If this institution is in their community, it's only right that they reap the reward of that. And hopefully, even if we're not changing these kids’ career paths, making them straight projection to a PhD- or MD-related neuroscience field, just making their connection to science beyond the classroom, I think is the big thing.”

The event was made possible by generous donations and volunteers from departments across the medical school.

Submitted by Pauline Charbogne on March 20, 2023