Brain Awareness Week Grantee Interview: Kristofer Rau, Ph.D.

Seimi Rurup
November 9, 2022
Girl with electrodes attached to her forearm flexes her hand. In background, a tablet computer shows the pulsewaves she is creating.

During their session on the nervous system, kids from the West End Center watch their muscles in action and view their EMGs using a Backyard Brains device. Photos courtesy of Kristofer Rau

Kris Rau, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and serves on the executive board of the Child Health Investment Partnership of Roanoke Valley (CHIP). Rau was also a recipient of the 2022 Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Award for Outreach Excellence for his commitment to K-12 STEM education outreach and to childhood health and wellness within the Roanoke community.

Q: Much of your outreach focuses on K-12 students living in under-served neighborhoods. Can you talk about the importance and impact of reaching people who are underrepresented in neuroscience?

Kristofer Rau

Rau: We have everything to gain by providing encouragement, opportunities, and support for underrepresented groups to pursue professions in neuroscience. The students I have the privilege of working with are enthusiastic, engaging, and ask amazing questions at our events. It is a tragedy when zip codes may determine so much in terms of health, education, and future opportunities. We need to nurture these students and help them reach their full potential. There is a place for everyone in neuroscience.

We realize our events that are geared to the younger age groups are not necessarily changing the course of anyone’s lives per se, but we do hope that the students at least come away from these experiences with some added knowledge as to how their nervous system works and nudge them into making healthy choices with nutrition, exercise, and wearing helmets for certain activities. As for the older age groups, at the Virginia Tech-Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, there are terrific pipeline programs in neurology and neuroscience that are offered to local high school students from underrepresented backgrounds. These students receive mentorship and hands-on experience by working side-by-side with our talented medical students, graduate students, and faculty. These types of programs can be particularly impactful for the futures of people who are underrepresented in neuroscience.

The Brain Awareness Week events you organize include a large number of volunteers made up of Virginia Tech faculty and students. How do you recruit these volunteers and your event participants? Any helpful tips for first-time event organizers?

I am a firm believer in teamwork, organization, and communication. I make an extra effort to try and get as many people involved in the process as I can. For many of our events we have a core group who organize all the details, acquire all the necessary supplies in advance, and effectively communicate with volunteers and our community partners. Our other volunteers know that all we require from them is their time, and their talents naturally shine through during our events. By making the process of volunteering easier, it also makes the activity an easy sell, and our volunteers get to reap all the wonderful benefits that come with doing outreach in their community.

I also feel that interprofessionalism is important, so we try to plan events that appeal to students, faculty, and staff from both the medical school and graduate school. We reach out to student interest groups and clubs, grad student and post-doc associations, and staff who oversee student activities. We include invitations in e-newsletters and post fliers with QR codes linked to sign-up forms. Everyone is invited to participate, and anyone can benefit from these experiences.

Another great way to appeal to volunteers (and also reach different audiences in the process) is to partner with a variety of community organizations in creative ways. As just one example, in Roanoke we have the West End Center for Youth, which is an after school educational facility that supports our under-served community. We partner with them for our Bodies & Bites program, where we use their educational rooms and kitchen to teach kids in 2nd through 5th grade about how their bodies work and how to keep healthy through good nutrition and exercise. Building relationships with multiple community partners produces a variety of opportunities for your volunteers to take a break from the lab and engage with their community.

I also typically follow up after events, and send a thank you email addressed to all the volunteers and their faculty mentors. Not only is it important to show gratitude to the volunteers, but also it makes their mentor aware of the valuable outreach their student is doing in their community. This encourages future participation from the volunteer as well as support from their mentor.

children around a commercial kitchen table mixing up something good
During their session on the digestive system, kids from the West End Center make a healthy snack (fruit kabobs and yogurt dip).

Aside from your work as a neuroscientist and professor at Virginia Tech, you’re also on the executive board of CHIP, an early childhood home visiting program that works with socioeconomically disadvantaged and under-served populations in your region, helping them access much needed medical services and providing developmental education, kindergarten preparation, and regular child assessment and monitoring. As a component of kindergarten prep, CHIP provides STEAM activities for children and parents to learn at home. Why is it important to have kids and their parents learn together?

Kids really flourish when they have parents who are engaged and invested in their education. Our CHIP family case workers and community health nurses have a limited amount of time with each family per visit. If we can provide a fun STEAM activity that appeals to both the child and parent alike, the conversation can continue beyond just that visit. Lesson plans that describe STEAM concepts using simple, understandable language, helps build confidence in the parent so that they realize they are capable of effectively teaching their child about STEAM. Encouraging the use of STEAM terms in the home also goes a long way to keeping the child interested and asking “I wonder” questions. Many of our CHIP families use Spanish as their primary language, so all of our STEAM activities also are translated to this language.

What inspired you to pursue a career focused on the brain, and do you have any advice for younger generations looking to do the same?

I actually have my undergrad degree in microbiology, and had intended to pursue a Ph.D. in the same field through the Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Science at the University of Florida. During the course of our lab rotations, I happened to meet the two individuals who became my joint graduate school mentors. They were passionate about their areas of neuroscience and introduced me to the technique of electrophysiology. I was easily hooked by their enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge of neuroscience, the tools they used to explore the nervous system, and their kindness. They were (and still are) wonderful mentors and even better human beings. So my advice to younger generations is to 1) follow your interests; 2) if those interests happen to change, feel free to pursue new interests, regardless of when that happens during your educational journey; and 3) find a terrific mentor. Earning a Ph.D. is challenging. It is so much easier and rewarding if you are able to find a good mentor who will help guide you along the way.

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