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This is the third in a series of Brain Awareness Week partner interviews, in which partners share their experiences and tips for planning successful events. Spiros Efthymiopoulos is the chair of the public awareness committee of the Hellenic Society for Neurosciences, and a professor in the department of biology at the University of Athens, Greece.
Dana Foundation: At last year’s FENS conference in Milan, Italy, the Hellenic Society for Neuroscience (HSfN) was awarded the EDAB-FENS Brain Awareness Excellence Award for its outstanding presentation of a public outreach program. How long has the Society been involved in awareness outreach and how have its efforts evolved through the years?
Spiros Efthymiopoulos: The HSfN has been involved in brain awareness events since its formation in 1985, as informing the public about the brain is one of the constitutive goals of our society. However starting in 2005, the HSfN began organizing events in a more systematic manner and has been keeping records of the activities. You can see most of our activities, both in Greek and in English, on our web page under the section Public Awareness/Brain Awareness Week.
The brain awareness program has expanded over the years and includes more than ten activities every year in various Greek cities including Athens, Thessaloniki, Patra, Heraklion, Rethymnon, Nafpaktos, and even in islands like Corfu, Amorgos, and Rhodes. More than 2,500 people attend these events every year. Some of the events are broadcasted via live streaming and are afterwards available in video. Furthermore, the event that takes place at the Eugenides Foundation (Athens, Greece) is communicated with all of the schools in Greece that participate by sending questions, videos, or poems. So, we expect that we reach a significantly larger audience.
DF: How was the Society able to expand its Brain Awareness Week activities so significantly?
SE: We were able to expand our activities because many members of our society have been involved consistently for years, and they continuously recruit younger members of the Society to participate. Furthermore, we have developed collaborations with public interest foundations that have similar goals—for example, we collaborate every year with the Eugenides Foundation. These foundations provide their own expertise, people, and lecture halls, thus significantly reducing the cost of organizing Brain Awareness Week activities. In addition, they help in publicizing our events. We have also developed collaborations with municipalities and schools, and have received support for many years from the European Dana Alliance for the Brain (EDAB).
DF: Many of the Society’s programs target young students. What advice can you give to other Brain Awareness Week partners looking to engage with this demographic? Are there particular topics or activities well-suited to certain ages?
SE: We are proud of our activities with elementary and high school students. There are so many topics that they need to be aware of, such as the role of sleep in learning and memory; addictions to drugs, the Internet, etc.; brain development; diet and brain function and health; emotions; the interaction of hormones and the brain; the effect of stress on learning and memory; brain and behavior; attention deficit disorder; dyslexia; etc. There are a wide range of subjects to develop and present.
I advise Brain Awareness Week partners to target this student population. This is probably the most important age group to target. They may not have been exposed to such issues and most likely they have not formed an opinion about them. They are rather in a process of shaping their personalities and adopting lifelong lifestyles. Thus, knowledge about the brain and its role in controlling our behavior may influence their views and behavior in the right direction—for example, not drinking alcohol. Especially now that young people may have
access to misleading information from the Internet, it is of the utmost importance that neuroscientists provide live, responsible, and solid scientific information. Targeting this age group may have a multiplier effect, too, since kids can influence their friends and their families.
Furthermore, in addition to influencing lifestyle decisions positively, informing youngsters about how the brain works and affects behavior could inspire them to study science—and neuroscience in particular. This is a very important outcome, since it will be up to the talented younger generations to successfully face the challenges of brain diseases, which are such a burden to societies.
DF: Your public outreach extends beyond Brain Awareness Week. What type of events do you organize and/or participate in throughout the year?
SE: Yes, our public outreach extends beyond Brain Awareness Week. We visit schools and give lectures, and we give interviews to the media.
DF: You’re a member of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, which is committed to enhancing the public’s understanding of why brain research is so important. What advice would you give to neuroscientists looking for ways to get involved in public outreach?
SE: I mainly became involved in public outreach when I was the president of the HSfN, and as an obligation toward EDAB, which awarded us funding to organize events. I never expected that eight years later I would continue to organize events and look for means to support these events. I am especially proud of the programs that involve schools and pupils; it is amazing how much interest students can show and how much energy they give. They develop and present projects, as well as write songs, theatrical plays, and poems. I do public outreach because it gives me pleasure, and I advise scientists to get involved. I tell them that it is a worthwhile endeavor and they will have a lot of fun.
Furthermore, I have to say that it is easy to organize such events. Scientists can start with their own kids’ schools. In collaboration with the schools, they can give neuroscience projects to the pupils to develop and present on a certain day, during which they also give a short seminar or question and answer session.