Eccles students lead public engagement on neuroscience

10 September 2021

What do a tree squirrel and a London cabby have in common? 

How did a railroad worker change the landscape of neuroscience? 

And why are brain researchers amazed by Michelangelo's paintings?

The answers to these questions (and more) were what drove many out of bed on a chilly morning last Saturday, 9 September.

They got up to join Brain Teaser 2021, an online event organised by five PhD students from our Eccles Institute of Neuroscience.

Synapse between researchers and public

As stimulating as its name sounds, the event is not about games of puzzles or riddles. Instead, it intrigued its participants with fundamental but fascinating mysteries in the field of neuroscience.

Part of the event was a series of eight talks by researchers from the John Curtin School of Medical Research.

By answering questions like those posed above, the presenters linked interesting histories and phenomena to fundamental concepts in the field, such as synapse, memory, and neurodevelopment.

Associate Professor Brian Billups, for example, discussed how neurons communicate, analogising a synapse to God's and Adam's fingers in The Creation of Adam. 

"They come very very close but they don’t actually touch. And this is how synapses are in the brain. There’s a little gap between neurons where this chemical transmitter must jump across,"described Brian. Image adapted from Stephen Magrath/CC0 1.0 Universal

After each presentation, questions from the audience flooded the chatbox on Zoom, and researchers had a great time sharing what they knew.

"Neuroscience is one of those fascinating topics that people enjoy learning about, but there is not much opportunity for communication with experts in the field," said Noorya Ahmed, one of the organisers of Brain Teaser 2021.

"Events such as Brain Teaser are the link between researchers and the general public," she said. 

Change amidst changes

Although the neuro-carnival turned out to be well-received, it wasn't planned to be an online event initially.

Since early July, the organising committee had put a lot of energy into the in-person aspects of Brain Teaser for National Science Week 2021.

They prepared multiple interactive booths and hands-on activities, expecting to amaze the public in the JCSMR Foyer on 21 August.

"Whilst we did go into the initial planning with the possibility of lockdown in mind, we were optimistic about avoiding it," recalled Angela Nicoli.

So when the ACT entered a snap lockdown a few days before the event, the team was disappointed.

"However, we still wanted to deliver the best event possible and make the most of this opportunity to share our research and passion with the wider public," said Noorya.

The disappointment was soon replaced by brainstorming and hustling over the next two weeks.

Rakshanya Sekar, a first-year PhD student, led the committee's work of moving as much planned content as possible onto a website. 

Eventually, they managed to turn ten interactive stalls into virtual booths, set up a Zoom conference, and promote creative competitions for participants to win prizes.

The organisers of Brain Teaser 2021. (L-R) Noorya Ahmed, Felix Thomas, Rakshanya Sekar, Nathan Reynolds, Angela Nicoli.

The hard work paid off. 

Near a hundred people attended the talks on the day, and dozens joined another Brain Teaser activity—a live science podcast—four days later.

"It was satisfying to see that we had a huge online turnout despite lockdown restriction," remarked Felix Thomas, one of the Brain Teaser organisers.

"I hope our event has given the public a glimpse into why the work we do, right here in Canberra, will go a long way to benefit the wider community."

Beyond the sterile walls

When looking back at this event, the PhD students appreciated the experience.

To Noorya, research is much more than working in a lab, and Brain Teaser brought people at Eccles together to converse with the public.

"It is really important for researchers to engage in effective outreach, to communicate what it is that we do as well as how and why we do it," commented Noorya. 

"As a PhD student, organising this event gave me a way to communicate my love of all things neuroscience with the wider public—friends and family, students who might consider studying neuroscience, as well as the Canberra community at large," said Angela.

Now, with experience and confidence in their teamwork, as well as all those "constructive ideas for the future" from the attendees, the Eccles students look forward to delivering a "bigger and better" Brain Teaser event next year.

You can watch all eight Brain Teaser 2021 Talks on our YouTube channel:

Updated:  15 September 2021/Responsible Officer:  Director, JCSMR/Page Contact:  Web Manager