Brain Awareness Week brings students from low-income schools to UCLA.

The dream of becoming a neurosurgeon will begin for some underprivileged kids at the UCLA campus.

The annual Brain Awareness Week is bringing over 450 students from title I schools like Crenshaw high school and Cochran middle school to UCLA to learn about neuroscience, experience brain specimens, tour scientific laboratories, and explore a career in research and medicine.

The effort is a part of an international campaign to raise public awareness about brain research led by the Society for Neuroscience.  It is spearheaded at UCLA by Project Brainstorm, a graduate student group that works with other campus organizations to educate K-12 students about neuroscience.

“The kids who are coming here are really in need of connecting with students, and seeing their faces, and asking questions, and seeing students like them who make it through the process to go to college in science fields, and putting a face with that career,” says Nanthia Suthana, a graduate student in neuroscience and one of the main organizers of Brain Awareness Week at UCLA.

The number of volunteers at UCLA has doubled from last year to over 100, partly because they recognize the need to enhance diversity in the sciences and in graduate education, said Suthana.

This year’s program includes live demos using real human and animal brains preserved by UCLA, as well as interactive activities on modules such as brain injury, learning and memory, neuronal firing, and brain lateralization.  The focus, however, will be on drug abuse and addiction, which is especially relevant to title I schools.  The demo on substance abuse will use an interactive computer program called Mouse Party that guides the students through scenarios in which an animated mouse is subject to different drugs of abuse.  The demos are staffed by Project Brainstorm and its collaborators, which include the undergraduate group Interaxon, the graduate diversity group STEM-PLEDGE, the Peer Advisory Community for Teens, and the Neuroscience Undergraduate Society.

Project Brainstorm operates under the auspices of the UCLA Brain Research Institute, which is exploring ways to bring low-income high school students in Los Angeles to research labs during the summer.

“I think it starts with the students,” said Dr. Joseph Watson, a professor in the Neuropsychiatric Institute who serves as the Brain Research Institute’s outreach program director.  “Students respond to students in a much different way than a faculty member coming in, (because) they’re all looking for a model, someone who used to be where they were, and have gone on to … go to a major university.”

Watson believes that seeing those with the same socioeconomic, ethnic, or language background go on to become scientists, engineers, and doctors is especially important for encouraging kids who grow up in poor neighborhoods with little access to quality science education.

“Students presenting (to high schoolers) always worry if they know enough about the brain, but the most important thing is not the substance; it’s the affect, it’s the enthusiasm, to see these kids’ eyes light up,” Watson said.  “It gives them a chance to speak in a less threatening situation.”

Watson recalls how neuroscience graduate students Libby O’Hare and Rafael Romero first began teaching high schoolers about the brain in 2004, an initiative that goes back to legendary UCLA educator Dr. Arnold Scheibel.  Romero and O’Hare enjoyed it so much they decided to push for the establishment of the field course Neuroscience 192, which teaches undergrads how to teach K-12 students about neuroscience.  One of those students, neuroscience major Shanna Fang, loved the course, and decided to form an undergraduate group for K-12 educational outreach called Interaxon.

Watson also remembers when Brain Awareness Week at UCLA was merely a volunteer-driven initiative led by O’Hare and Linda Maninger, and involved just a few schools over a couple of days.  Little did he know that it would turn into a week-long event involving seven underprivileged schools with $12,000 of funding from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, Society for Neuroscience, and the UCLA Campus Program fund.  Watson attributes this expansion to the efforts of neuroscience grad students like Suthana, along with Marina Ziehn and Angela Rizk-Jackson, who began formalizing the effort to bring in specifically underrepresented title I schools.

One person who discovered the joy of teaching in Neuroscience 192 is third year neuroscience major Sharon Carmona.   Being herself from a low-income high school, Carmona can relate to kids who never had a scientific education.

“I really wished I could have partaken in a program like this,” said Carmona.  “Many (of the kids) came from families that had never gone to college, and they don’t even know it’s a possible path for them.”

During the demos, Carmona showed high schoolers a real human spinal cord as well as a model of the human vertebrae.  Because the preserved specimen is so short, Carmona had to convince the kids that it was a spinal cord from an adult, not a baby.  This was one of the myths Carmona had to dispel, along with ideas like the size of one’s brain is the size of a person’s fist, brought up by one kid.

The educational component of Brain Awareness Week is being handled by Interaxon, an undergraduate student group specializing in teaching K-12 students about the brain.  One innovative teaching strategy presented by Interaxon involves passing stickers labeled sodium, potassium, and calcium in demonstrating the ions that flow during the action potential, an event that occurs when nerve cells fire.  Another lesson involves letting students use only one hand to build a structure using marshmellows and toothpicks in order to demonstrate the way different functions are localized to each hemisphere of the brain.

“We bring a lot of enthusiasm to this program,” said Wendy Fujioka, a third year neuroscience major and the president of Interaxon.  “A lot of our members are first and second years, so they’re still trying to decide what to do; being able to work with grad students and faculty … helps them get a better feel for the university.”

One of the major themes of this year’s Brain Awareness Week is on substance abuse.  Addiction research is central to the work of Angie Morales, a neuroscience graduate student who uses functional MRI to image the brains of substance abusers.  In the demo, Morales uses the software Mouse Party to let kids interactively play around with an animated mouse that undergoes various types of drug treatment.  She also presented a poster on chemical messengers involved in substance abuse.

“This gives us an opportunity to give (high schoolers) the facts about drugs of abuse,” said Morales.  “A lot of times kids respond better this way than to lectures on the facts (alone).”

Morales hopes that the curiosity sparked in these underprivileged kids will spurt them on to further study, even if it means a hard road to success.

“It may be more difficult coming from the background they’re coming from, (unlike) private schools with lots of funding,” said Morales.  “They need to fight against the odds stacked against them.”

In turn, UCLA students learn to explain difficult scientific topics to the general community, because they are forced to make it accessible to school children, suggests Morales.

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