Brain Awareness Week Grantee Interview: Emilie Tresse-Gommeaux, Ph.D.

Seimi Rurup
February 19, 2023
Three students in white lab coats looking at a microscope

Emilie Tresse-Gommeaux, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Biotech Research & Innovation Centre, where she also helps lead the development of the school’s annual Brain Awareness Week events. The Danish institution was a 2022 recipient of the FENS/Dana Foundation Brain Awareness Week Grant and organized elaborate activities designed to engage younger students with neuroscience. 

Q: One of your main outreach activities this past year was an “Escape Room” challenge for high school students to help identify a fictional drug for Parkinson’s disease. How did your team develop this concept? 

Emilie Tresse-Gommeaux

Tresse-Gommeaux: Our aim was to communicate about the disease we are working on, which is Parkinson’s disease, as well as our own roles in laboratories, to inspire a new generation of scientists. It seemed to us that the very long path from first discovery to an efficient medication or treatment is not always well-conceived, as there are a number of different steps and actors throughout this process. Additionally, the brain is a complex organ, from its functions to the way it can be studied. You cannot just take a biopsy of a patient to diagnose the progression of a disease or determine whether a medication is efficient. This is notably why it is so challenging to design a cure for a specific brain disease. 

We developed the escape room as a path through four rooms, designed to mimic the path typically taken by a scientist. The first room focused on fundamental biology so students could understand how neurons function. Room 2 focused on histology, depicting how the brain is affected during a disease, which then led to Room 3, our translational biology room. Here, students learned how the disease’s effect on the brain can also impact behavior. The fourth and final room, on quantification, allowed for more practical application. Students learned how to test and quantify the efficacy of a drug on neuronal function.

Our goal for this activity was to clarify why fundamental knowledge is essential to develop practical applications. It also established the different levels that need to be studied in neuroscience, neurons, brain, and cerebral functions. Finally, this gave the students an overview of several basics and concepts in neuroscience.

Your Brain Awareness Week event included enough Ph.D. students and postdocs as facilitators that every high school student was able to have direct engagement with a researcher. What are some tips for recruiting volunteers and event participants?

First, we were lucky to have very proactive, young scientists in our group who really wanted to participate. We thus brainstormed as a team, thinking about what we wanted to do and asking ourselves, “What knowledge do we think is important to transfer, and how can we make it fun?” This is when the escape room idea came into play. I think it was the involvement of young scientists from the beginning that was key to success because they were motivated and came up with a really cool concept. After that, we communicated with other colleagues around us and received very enthusiastic feedback and a strong willingness to participate—even among more senior scientists.

On a daily basis, we encourage all our students to participate in engagement activities. This is important to keep the main goal of what our work is, which is to eventually find new diagnoses and therapeutics for brain diseases, and not be restricted to the practicalities of what a Ph.D. thesis might typically look like. Additionally, direct engagement is a wonderful opportunity to enhance communication skills.

In Denmark, we have a network of high school teachers to whom scientists can propose different outreach projects and request participants. We’ve found that there is a real demand for hands-on, scientific outreach experiments.

Photo of students in white lab coats listening to a speaker
Ph.D. students and postdocs from the Biotech Research & Innovation Centre acted as instructors and tutors, answering questions about neuroscience research from curious students.

How did the students who participated in the Escape Room-style challenge respond? Were there any surprising takeaways?

We were actually quite surprised with how well-received the escape room was and how interested the students were. Parkinson’s disease is, unfortunately, quite a prevalent disease, so numerous students could actually picture it from having family members or friends affected. They clearly understood the need to find a cure for the disease and were eager to understand the mechanisms behind the symptoms. They were very interested in all the different scientific technicals—electrophysiology and brain anatomy, for example—while the more practical aspects of research, such as double-blind labelling, seemed surprisingly challenging for some of them. 

With high school students as the target audience for your outreach, what are some strategies you use to engage with young teens who may not be as familiar with certain scientific concepts?

We used a hands-on approach that definitely kept students focused. The escape room was presented as a competition between teams of classmates, meaning that every single student was involved and needed to pay attention in order for the team to succeed. We also played the visual card: Every single room had a palpable/visual result, which students could clearly see and quantify whenever there was a change. This made it easy to directly link a scientific concept to its importance, so our audience could understand how that knowledge could then be applied.  

Check out our Brain Awareness Week website and make plans for your own events next year!