A cerebral celebration

By ARDEN BASTIA
Posted 3/10/21

“It’s only really been in the last half century that we know what we know about the brain. We know about the stars, we know about the physical world around us, but what lies within is …

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A cerebral celebration

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“It’s only really been in the last half century that we know what we know about the brain. We know about the stars, we know about the physical world around us, but what lies within is still a big mystery,” says Dr. Victoria Heimer-McGinn, assistant professor of neuroscience at Roger Williams University and founder and co-chair of Brain Week Rhode Island.

Since its inception in 2016, Brain Week Rhode Island (BWRI) has brought together thousands of parents, children, scientists, educators, artists and community members to discover the wonders of the brain.

This year, from March 15 to 20, BWRI is going virtual, with a week of free online programs to celebrate neuroscience. The events will take place from March 15 to March 20, in conjunction with Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.

Dr. Heimer-McGinn said it was a “coincidence” that she ended up in the neuroscience field. In an interview, she explained that she was first interested in science on the molecular level, but then one project lead to another as she studied more and more human behavior. Now, Dr. Heimer-McGinn says she “can’t get enough of it.”

Dr. Heimer-McGinn was inspired to launch Brain Week because of family history with mental illness. “My uncle has schizophrenia, and his illness has spawned three generations of people in my family that are interested in brain science from one angle or another. My grandfather was also a neuroanatomist back in the day, and it really inspired me to go into the neurosciences in the first place,” she said during an interview last Friday.

One aspect of neuroscience that particularly fascinates Dr. Heimer-McGinn, is advocating for mental illness. “Society has this idea that mental illness is almost like a moral deficiency, like if you’re addicted to alcohol, there’s something wrong with you at a personal level and it’s not biological.”

Dr. Heimer-McGinn spent a large part of her post-graduate work canvassing and campaigning for Congress to increase funding to mental health research.

“People tend to vilify the sciences sometimes, and I want to change that perception,” she said. “We want to get people excited instead. Let’s just teach people about why brain research is good, and why it’s fun and exciting. Let’s try to get kids excited to do brain science when they grow up, and inspire adults to learn and know more.”

For Dr. Heimer-McGinn, “putting it all in one nutshell” is what distinguishes BWRI from other brain awareness programs. “Rhode Island is the perfect place to do that, because we’re such a small state, and we’re so interconnected,” she said. “We’re trying to form a community of brain related, not only scientists, but community partners across the state.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Heimer-McGinn and other Brain Week RI members would partner with universities, high schools, community centers, and hospitals to put on events and lectures. Previous events include lectures on interpersonal conflict and connection at the Nonviolence Institute, and Brain Fairs at the University of Rhode Island and Brown University.

Role models for students

“The brain controls everything, so it literally impacts everything that you do,” said Dr. Heimer-McGinn. “There’s even neuroeconomics. So even if you’re a Rotary Club or some sort of business, there are brain scientists that study what you do.”

Dr. Heimer-McGinn believes there is “a lot of opportunity and growth and interconnection” within the state. “And neurosciences is one of the up and coming areas, economically, in Rhode Island. So this is a part of the fabric of budding neuroscience jobs.”

During the interview, she explained she sees BWRI as “contributing, not only educationally, but also to the very fabric of the economy.”

For both Dr. Heimer-McGinn and her co-chair Dr. Oluwarotimi “Timi” Folorunso, PhD, promoting diversity in science is a key aspect of BWRI.

“I’m from Puerto Rico. And every time I go into a classroom, that’s the first thing I say,” she said. Growing up in Puerto Rico was an advantage to her scientific career. She described “the privilege of looking around and seeing that everyone, whether doctors or lawyers, was Puerto Rican and looked like me.”

It wasn’t until she began her academics at the University of Florida did she realize the privilege she experienced as a child, and said she was inspired to use it to help others who “may not feel like they belong at the table”.

“Role models are incredibly important. Little kids sometimes grow up to not even consider a career because they don’t see people like them in that position. And so it never even occurs to them,” she said. “It’s really important for us scientists to be able to speak to children and be role models. You don’t learn that in graduate school. Timi and I are drawn to this, and we’re good at it, but not everybody is.”

That’s a big part of their job-educating Rhode Island scientists on bring role models.

For Folorunso, educating young students about the possibilities of a career in neuroscience is vitally important. “We want to be a resource for the schools and make sure the students see any kind of neuroscience career, and they’ve been exposed to those people at least once.”

“We have a good team of people that do different parts of research in different parts of neuroscience. But if we can’t, we’re already connected with universities and hospitals in Rhode Island, so we can find someone that can come and speak to something,” he said in an interview.

Folorunso originally hails from Harvard University where he works as a post-doctoral research fellow in the Translational Psychiatry Laboratory at McClean Hospital. He is also the director of McClean’s Mental Health Research Summer Program for Black, Indigenous, and underrepresented students of color.

Increasingly accessibility to a field of science that may seem out of reach is “very, very intentional” to Folorunso. “Even though we can’t be there in person, we want Brain Week to be something that’s very interactive.”

Folorunso is most excited about the “bite size” lunchtime lectures, storytelling, and theater. “Even though we’re involved in planning the whole thing, I’m curious about the plays,” he said. “I’m curious about how the playwright is able to interact with scientists and how they can bring science to life.”

The lunchtime series will feature some of the most esteemed research and educational institutions in the state, covering subjects such as the brain’s functions in memory, sleep, and migraine, the impact of exercise and mindfulness on the brain, as well as neuroeconomics and mental illness. Pablo Rodgriguez, MD, an associate professor of OBGYN at Brown University and a co-founder of Latino Public Radio, where he hosted a daily radio show in Spanish, will moderate the conversations.

“We’re excited for this lineup. We have a diverse lineup in all ways, what they talk about, who they are, you know, everything,” Folorunso shared.

Why neuroscience now?

“I mean, why not,” said Dr. Heimer-McGinn. “Neuroscience is a budding field. There’s public interest in it. The brain is used in every single field. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what brain science is and what it can explain. I think that it is really relevant right now for scientists to be the one to educate the public.”

“It is our responsibility to now not be so inward facing, and update people on the advances that we’ve made,” said Folorunso. “We want to give people things to take home with them and to think about. It’s a very timely event.”

Dispelling brain myths is another key aspect to Brain Week RI.

“This whole argument, myth, that we only use 10 percent of our brain is baffling to me,” said Dr. Heimer-McGinn. “Basically, it does everything. If I were to track you throughout the day, at some point in the day, every single part of your brain is going to light up. You get up in the morning, you have to remember where your bathroom is, and you have to walk to the bathroom. The idea of 90 percent of your brain being silent is just absurd. So yes, we use 100 percent of our brains all the time.”

For Folorunso, he wants to dispel the myth of the brain’s plasticity. “We think that the brain is set in it’s ways, that you can’t change. But you just have to keep practicing. The brain can change.”

As words of advice to future scientists, Dr. Heimer-McGinn wants to encourage representation.

“Science endeavors start with research questions, and a research question comes from something you’re curious about in the world,” she said. “The more people we have with different insights, the more types of research questions we will have and therefore, the more answers we will get.”

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