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Yale’s 15th Annual Brain Education Day: “I think I just found my career!”

April 24, 2024
by Hannah Nashed

On March 30th, 2024, Yale hosted its 15th Annual Brain Education Day, continuing its tradition of science outreach to the greater New Haven community.

The day began as thirty volunteers filed into the location of this year’s event: Yale’s Anlyan Center for Medical Research and Education, also known as TAC. Though most volunteers were from Yale’s neuroscience graduate program (Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program or INP), the event was a collaborative effort across all neuroscience communities, including individuals from the Departments of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Psychiatry. This year also saw the greatest turnout of volunteers to date.

Leah Harmon, a third-year INP student in the Chandra lab and one of this year's lead coordinators, attributes a portion of the increased turnout to the newly Yale-occupied building situated at 100 College Street. This building hosts the Wu Tsai Institute as well as several departments focusing on brain research, allowing for more frequent interdepartmental contact. Consequently, the 15th Annual Brain Education Day witnessed not only an increase in the number of volunteers but also a greater diversity of backgrounds among volunteers. Leah herself decided to help organize the event, viewing Yale’s Brain Education Day as an opportunity to connect the institution and the community, even if only for a moment.

We can use the resources of the school to improve the lives of people in the community. This day is really a way to share those rich resources with students.

Leah Harmon

A collection of 90 high school and middle school students from the Yale Pathways to Science program gathered in TAC’s main hall. Divided in three groups, they took turns visiting the various stations positioned across the Medical campus.

The first station was held at the recently unveiled 100 College Street building with its seven newly renovated Yale floors. Here, Yogev and Hammarlund labs guided students through various microscopy and fluorescence techniques using the microscopic worm C. elegans. As the students peered through the microscopes, a captivating world unfolded before their eyes, allowing them to adopt the role of a scientist as they observed the intricate inner workings of a cell.

Tyler Nelson—a second-year INP student in the Addy lab as well as another one of this year’s lead coordinators—noticed how eager the attendees were to answer questions and volunteer their thoughts. She was shocked by one student in particular who accurately guessed that green fluorescent proteins (GFP) were derived from jellyfish.

I feel like they pay attention to things in the world, and were really pulling from all of those experiences in order to answer questions. Just the confidence that some of the students had to speak up and share their ideas [....] really kind of stuck with me.

Tyler Nelson

The second station, held at the Yale Sterling Hall of Medicine, focused on how environmental cues can influence an animal’s behavior. Researchers from the Gracheva and Bagrianstev labs first introduced students to the concept of thermal regulation. The students, using a thermal camera, were able to watch the signal shift from orange and yellow hues to blue as their classmates' hands were immersed in a bucket of ice. Shadé Eleazer, a second-year INP student in the Gracheva lab, remarked on the students’ excitement to “engage with science and see it first hand.”

The next part of the station used cockroaches, showcasing the insect as the prime jewel of scientific discovery. By conducting electricity through the body of the anesthetized insect, researchers demonstrated how one could make the leg of a cockroach twitch as if in a simulated dance. If so desired—and it was—the leg could even move to the beat of a song.

The kids really loved that a little too much. They were even requesting their own songs.

Shadé Eleazer

At the third and final station, students had the opportunity to examine the intricate anatomy of a sheep's brain and even participate in dissecting one themselves. Leah Harmon remarked that some of them did astonishingly well. She remembered one student who, after finishing his dissection, exclaimed “I think I just found my career!”

In addition to the science stations, the event included a college admission presentation for students and their parents or guardians, led by Michelle Nearon, PhD, Senior Associate Dean & Director of the Office for Graduate Student Development and Diversity. The event also featured a keynote speaker. This year, Alicia Y Che, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, shared her research examining the effects of early life experiences on one’s brain. She warmly welcomed students' questions and entertained their various curiosities about her journey to Yale—though they were most interested in her experiences handling mice.

Altogether, students spent eight hours fully engaged in the realm of neuroscience. Reflecting upon the day, Tyler acknowledges the fact that Brain Education Day may not be enough to allow for a thorough understanding of neuroscientific concepts. Nevertheless, she hopes that the exposure to the field ignited a sense of curiosity in students and provided them with a more realistic depiction of what it means to be a scientist. Shadé Eleazer reflected upon her own childhood experience:

I think it's really inspiring to say, ‘Hey? Someone looks like me and is doing this thing.’ And that's something that I didn't really have as a kid, or even as an undergrad. It's really important to showcase that.

Shadé Eleazer

In fact, during the day a few kids even went up to the volunteers and asked to get involved in research—inspired not only by the captivating presentations but also by the tangible belief that they, too, could engage in such endeavors.

The success of the 15th Annual Brain Education Day could not have been accomplished without the efforts of all the volunteers, the Yale Pathways program with Maria E. Parente and Richard Crouse, the Yale INP, as well as countless faculty and donors.

At Yale, we have so many different types of people with so many diverse backgrounds and perspectives. So I hope that the kids had a good time, and that maybe they could see themselves in our shoes one day, because, it really could be them.

Tyler Nelson
Submitted by Pauline Charbogne on April 19, 2024