Brain Awareness Week Partner Interview: Ana João Rodrigues

March 9, 2016

"Art Exposition" at ICVS, University of Minho. Brain cells in plasticine made by five- to seven-year-old students. Photo courtesy of the University of Minho.

This is the second in a series of Brain Awareness Week partner interviews, in which partners share their experiences and tips for planning successful events. Ana João Rodrigues, Ph.D.,  is a faculty investigator at ICVS, University of Minho, Braga, in Portugal, and the neuroscience outreach coordinator at ICVS. Rodrigues is also a Dana Alliance member.

The University of Minho’s Brain Awareness Week program draws hundreds of people to its events, ranging in age from young students to elderly people. Can you give an example of a well-received activity or topic for each age group?

Brain Awareness Week is one of the several programs our institute organizes every year to promote interest in science and to disseminate scientific knowledge. Brain Awareness Week initiatives include participants from 4 to 80 year olds, and more than 30 researchers!

For students, I think that the “Anatomical Theater” is a success. They can see and touch real brains. Researchers identify some brain regions and explain their functions. Students can compare between human, rodent, and pig brains in terms of size and structure.

For seniors, I would recommend the “Exercise Your Brain” activity. Here, seniors can anonymously answer different questions about the brain. Some of the questions require that they remember pictures or make calculations, while others are more general. After they record their answers, we explain the correct answers, and this gives rise to even more questions. Interestingly, they are really competitive and keen to learn! They also enjoy very much the “Neurological Exam Explanation,” where an M.D. explains the basis for some of the neurological tests used in clinics.

Picture 4_icvs
“Know your brain.” Seniors learning some brain anatomy. Photo courtesy of the University of Minho.

Creativity and the arts have been integrated into several of the University’s Brain Awareness Week programs through the years. What advice can you give to other partners looking to add creative flair to their neuroscience events?

To be honest, in the beginning we were skeptical about the impact that a piece of paper and paint would have on students, and thought that they would be more interested in other activities. However, younger students (and some seniors) were really focused when drawing neurons and glia (even if they had never seen them or had only seen a brief picture of these cells in an initial presentation).

From our experience, even the people who think they are not creative and talented indeed are. They just need some time to relax and give wings to creativity. You cannot imagine the types of paintings/canvases and sculptures we see every year! By using very simple and accessible materials such as paints, A3 papers, and plasticine, you can give people the opportunity to let their minds fly.

How do you publicize your events? Has social media played a role in your outreach?

Our events are publicized on a personalized Web page on our Institute/University website and on social networks. We also send press releases to local journals and sometimes have the opportunity to reach national newspapers and TV.

What is your favorite part of Brain Awareness Week?

The opportunity to promote community interest in science (and neuroscience). To hear some youngsters say that they changed their mind about their future careers by participating in these activities. To hear elderly people say that it was one of the best days of their lives and that they had so much fun!

Picture 2_icvs
“What do I want to know about my brain?” Four to seven-year-old children have the opportunity to ask neuroscientists some questions about the brain. Photo courtesy of the University of Minho.

The University of Minho’s Brain Awareness Week 2015 events can be seen in a great summary video online; what is being planned for this year?

This year we will have two types of initiatives: 1) Open day and 2) Interactive seminars.

In the open day, we open our laboratory doors to the community and prepare some experimental activities according to the visitors’ ages. We will have around 150 seniors in the morning session and 200 students in the afternoon.

In the other initiative, our neuroscientists go to different institutions all over Portugal (schools, high schools, nursing homes, foster homes) and give interactive seminars about brain function in health and disease. They also show some of our scientific achievements and work that our institute has been developing in the neuroscience field.

Last, but not least, it is important to acknowledge that the success of Brain Awareness Week at the University of Minho is only possible with the institutional support of ICVS and the Health Sciences School, together with the incredible effort of the neuroscience team (in particular Fernanda Marques and Neide Vieira). A very special acknowledgment to Nuno Sousa, neuroscience team coordinator, who is always supportive and enthusiastic about Brain Awareness Week initiatives.

Brain Awareness Week will take place March 14-20. Check out our International Calendar of Events to look for activities in your area!