Brain Month: 5 Questions on Neuroscience Outreach with Kelley Remole

March 17, 2015
Kelley Remole answers local schoolchildren's questions on the brain

Kelley Remole, Zuckerman Institute's director of neuroscience outreach (center), answers local schoolchildren's questions on the brain.

Kelley Remole has been interested in science since she was a child. In high school, she was drawn to astronomy and neuroscience, which she says involve “the biggest questions in science, what is our place in the universe and what makes us who we are.” As an undergraduate at Columbia (CC’04), her interest in neuroscience won out, and she went on to study the relationship between physiological changes in the brain and psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia as a Ph.D. student (GSAS’12), working in the lab of Associate Professor of Neurobiology Holly Moore.

Remole is now director of neuroscience outreach at the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, leading an effort to engage and inform the public about brain science.

March is Brain Month at Columbia, with lectures and panel discussions with noted research scientists, and a Community Brain Expo on March 18.

“There is a long history of excellence in neuroscience at Columbia started in large part by Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. The Zuckerman Institute builds on that tradition with Dr. Kandel as one of the co-directors along with Kavli-prize winning neuroscientist Thomas Jessell and Nobel laureate Richard Axel,” Remole says. “It is highly unusual for an academic center of this caliber to be doing this kind of outreach.”

Q. Why is public outreach so important in neuroscience?

Science is supported in large part by taxpayers. President Obama (CC’83) has made brain research a national priority. It is important for the public to understand what this national priority means for them and get excited about it. The more we can engage people in what’s happening at Columbia and around the world the more people will feel a part of it.

Q. What is Columbia doing in this area?

The Zuckerman Institute wants to enhance the brain-science literacy of the public. We host an array of activities including a free, public lecture series, supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which has featured Eric Kandel talking about brain science and Pulitzer-winner Jonathan Weiner discussing evolution, among others. In connection with these lectures, we have workshops for public school science teachers, who meet Columbia research scientists and develop lesson plans. The Brain Research Apprentices in New York at Columbia (BRAINYAC) gives high school students the opportunity to work in a neuroscience laboratory—some even work alongside Eric Kandel. We have 14 students this year, most of them from public schools in upper Manhattan. They attend class twice a month from January through May and then are matched with a mentor, either a graduate student or post-doc, to do research for six weeks during the summer.

Q. Tell me about the Community Brain Expo, which takes place this year on March 18.

It is part of International Brain Awareness Week, an initiative started by the non-profit Dana Foundation 20 years ago. Now in its third year, the Brain Expo activities are mostly targeted to middle-school students but there are activities for people of all ages led by Columbia graduate students, post-docs, and research technicians. For example, people throw a beanbag at a target while wearing vision-altering goggles so they can see how the brain adapts to new situations. Another activity measures the electrical activity of muscles as they contract in response to brain signals. But the highlight is letting people see the real brains we have—of mice, birds, fish, sheep, cows and even humans. The animal brains are in jars but the human brains have been plastinated, a process that makes them like hard plastic so they can be handled.

Q. What outreach are you planning going forward?

We are gearing up for the science education center at the Jerome L. Greene Science Center on the new Manhattanville campus, scheduled to open in 2016. Engagement with our neighboring communities is part of the Zuckerman Institute’s mission. The education center will have after-school science programs for children and activities for families on weekends that will be similar to what we do at the Brain Expo. It will raise the bar on how science is presented to the public so we can get more people interested in the brain.

Q. How did you get involved with neuroscience outreach?

As an undergraduate I volunteered to go to a local public school to talk about the brain. I liked it so much that when I got to graduate school I recruited two of my friends to join me and talk to school children about the brain. That grew into Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach (CUNO), a program that continues to thrive. Each year Columbia graduate students make classroom visits to about a dozen local schools. Kids are open to learning anything. If they have a transformative experience in childhood it may inspire them to pursue science as a career. Even if they don’t, we hope it instills in them a life-long interest in science.