braiNY blogs

A Flurry of Discovery

By Katie Shakman, M.A., M.Phil

Each spring, Brain Awareness Week transforms New York City.  Neuroscientists emerge from their labs and take to museums, bars, and even yoga studios. Their mission: to spread their enthusiasm and knowledge about the brain to people of all ages and backgrounds.  I’m one of these neuroscientists: as a PhD student at Columbia University, I’ve engaged in all kinds of outreach projects since I joined Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach (CUNO) nearly 4 years ago.  We do outreach throughout the year, visiting schools and holding events from science fairs to lab tours.  Yet, though I’m involved in events all year long, I still feel a special energy during Brain Awareness Week.  Let me tell you why.

I kicked off this Brain Awareness Week at the American Museum of Natural History. This museum is a hallowed ground to me, a revered hall of science that I’ve heard about in books since I was little, so it filled me with a certain pride to realize that I have something to give here, to share with the school groups and families that pour through these doors.  It was a Saturday in March, almost noon, and I was headed to the Sackler Lab to volunteer at the American Museum of Natural History’s Brain Awareness Weekend. There’s  something unique about BAW — it’s a week when you can feel the combined energy of groups from across the city. It’s also a time of unusual opportunities for both volunteers and the public.  The chance to work with the Sackler Lab is one of those rare opportunities.

The first thing that struck me as I entered the Sacker Lab was the light. In contrast to the darkened museum exhibits outside its doors, the inside of the lab was flooded with sunlight streaming in from the 77th Street lawn supplemented generously with natural-feeling full-spectrum lighting.  Soha, the volunteer coordinator, showed me into the lab and gave an orientation to the tables: Human Anatomy, Brain Stains, Worms, and Flies. I was covering the Flies table for the full day, and I was well-armed: there were three different types of mutants and a dissected fly brain (yes, flies really do have brains!), each under its own microscope, and a bright kid-friendly model of DNA.  To top it off there was a tablet loaded with videos of flies fighting and courting. I had only been tinkering with the samples a few minutes before the museum visitors began to find their way into the lab.

As a volunteer, I always jump at the chance to work with a museum.  Organizations like the American Museum of Natural History have fantastic outreach programs and resources, allowing us to put on amazing interactive activities. What’s more, the reach you have at a museum event is huge, with tourists from around the globe flooding through the doors and up to your station. You meet folks of all ages, nationalities, from 4-year-olds to grand parents.  During this event, some folks gave the impression of living just around the corner, while some chatted with each other in languages I couldn’t place. One group of blazer-clad teenagers on vacation from Mexico spent quite a while looking at the mutants and pointing out some of the stranger-looking flies under the microscopes.  A little boy was too tiny to reach the microscopes, even when standing on a chair, so his parents lifted him up to gaze at the mutant flies up-close. A woman asked how flies serve society, which I question I get a lot because I’m studying reinforcement learning in flies for my PhD thesis.  She was interested to hear that some disease-related genes (like the parkin gene, associated with a form of parkinsonism) were discovered in flies, and that the relative simplicity of flies allows us to explore fundamental principles of brain function. Later, a little girl and her mother came by our table, took a lap through the other tables, and came back to us. She lingered for almost an hour asking questions about genetics and neuroscience.  When I asked her if she’d considered what she wanted to do when she grows up, she replied “Yes.  I want to be a scientist!”  At this her mother remarked, “Look at all the girl neuroscientists you met today!”

The day at the museum was a whirlwind for volunteers, and a great way to kick off Brain Awareness Week. It’s delightful to remember how exciting your work can be, especially to kids, and to feel that you can inspire someone. In the minutes before closing time, I sat in the sprawling Rose center and reflected on my experience.  I felt privileged to share in this event, especially to have something to offer eager young faces, and to light them up with discovery.

baw20151At the Columbia Brain Expo’s “Building” station, a child shows off his network of inter-connected pipe-cleaner neurons to CUNO volunteer Melina Tsitsiklis.  Image credit: Eileen Barroso for Columbia University.

Just a few days later, CUNO and the Zuckerman Institute threw the annual Brain Expo at Columbia’s medical campus in Washington Heights. This Expo is only a few years old, but is one of CUNO’s most popular events of the year, drawing everyone from doctors and professors to local families to drop by and learn about the brain. This is my second year helping to organize the fair, and it’s become one of my favorite outreach events. This was the most ambitious year yet: various laboratories and campus organizations brought their own demonstrations and activities to go alongside some of our “field-tested” favorites. With 8 stations in all, and 120 visitors, the lobby of the New York State Psychiatric Institute was packed for an energetic afternoon of Brain Awareness.

BAW20152jpgWe get all kinds of reactions to CUNO’s human brain collection. This visitor could barely contain her excitement!  Image credit: Eileen Barroso for Columbia University.

The activities ranged from “Building Pipe Cleaner Neurons” (a craft that introduces the basics of neurons) and “Tasting and Smelling” (learn about multisensory integration through jelly beans), to “Experimenting” (use microscopes to check out tiny aquatic creatures).  I was stationed at the “Moving” table: we used an electromyography device (EMG SpikerBox, from Backyard Brains) to measure electrical activity in participants’ hand muscles. I’ve become quite attached to this activity over the years. The EMG demo is a hit with everyone from preschool kids to seasoned professors.  The wee ones’ minds get a kick out of learning that there is electricity in their bodies, and that their brains use it to control their muscles!  Scientists love to tinker with the machine or show it to their families.

One of my colleagues came by with this niece and nephew and helped them try it out.  After we tried a couple of “experiments” with them, he asked “Why doesn’t [the machine] pick up activity in proprioceptors?” (Proprioceptors are sensors that allow us to feel where our body parts are in space and which muscles are contracted.)  Always fun to get a question we’ve never had before!  Our best guess: it’s hard to pick up signals through the skin, so we only get the biggest signals, like those in muscles that are pretty big and close to the surface.  And he wasn’t the only scientist to come by: several faculty members visited us throughout the afternoon, including at least two neuro families that came by the Movement station – a welcome show of support for our outreach efforts.  There’s nothing quite like the experience of teaching kids about your field, and seeing the sparks of understanding and enthusiasm appear across their faces. It’s not so often in the laboratory that you get the opportunity to feel the warm, nurturing side of science — the transmission of passion from one generation to the next.

BAW20153CUNO volunteer Najja Marshall reads electrical activity from a child’s hand muscles.  Image credit: Eileen Barroso for Columbia University.

After gathering up the Expo materials and passing our Brain Bank on to its next activity, I knew I would have to eat in a hurry if I wanted to make it from Washington Heights to Brooklyn for my last BAW event.  But I was more excited than stressed: this time, I would be celebrating brains not as a volunteer, but as an audience member.  I had tickets to The Story Collider, a science story-telling podcast and performance series, and the entire show was to be Brain Awareness-themed.  My own BAW responsibilities completed, I was looking forward to a stimulating evening basking in the stories of NYU grad students and a Columbia psychiatry professor, among others.

BAW20156CUNO volunteers Laura Long (left) and Melina Tsitsiklis (top) look on as one young visitor displays a pipe-cleaner neuron to Professor Daphna Shohamy (center), while Professor Mike Shadlen (right) explains the project to another guest. Image credit: Eileen Barroso for Columbia University.

It was my first time at the Littlefield Theater in Brooklyn, and when I arrived nearly every seat was filled — but miraculously I managed to find a prime spot, right in front of the stage.  From the first lines of opening banter, punctuated by warm laughter from the audience surrounding me, I felt I was among friends, smiling and nodding with recognition in all the same places.  The stories ranged from a physical therapist describing how he overcame the odds in his youth, to a professor of neuropsychiatry explaining how his roots in a disenfranchised community inspire him to research and advocacy. In one particularly moving story, a graduate student recounted how she had overcome a difficult situation and found the strength to believe in herself.  In the world of science, we strive to be analytical and unbiased, and we are often guarded about the passions and experiences that drive us.  But here, in this room, there was a trust and respect for stories, that brought out the truth of what science can mean to a person.

In her post “The unexpected benefits of science outreach”, Dr. Paula Croxson has explored how telling stories encourages scientists to reflect on why they do what they do.  From the audience, I related to that experience – listening to others tell their origin stories helped me to remember what had motivated me to get into science.  But Story Collider went beyond that; it played upon my curiosity about other areas of neuroscience and medicine, and reminded me that even within neuroscience, there are even more many paths and gripping questions as there are people to study them.  And it reminded me of one of the amazing things about being a neuroscientist in this city: our fantastic community of scientists, medical professionals, artists, and science enthusiasts, all with their own stories and perspectives on the brain.

5BaW2015All smiles while learning about the human brain at Columbia’s Brain Expo. Image credit: Eileen Barroso for Columbia University.

Sometimes, in the day to day grind, I forget what it felt like when I first exposed to neuroscience, when I first learned how scientists were unraveling the foundations of what makes us move, smell, taste, feel… what shapes the unique lens through which each of us sees the world.  I remember being 12 years old, amazed by the human brains that local medical students brought in to our classroom.  Each year, Brain Awareness Week reminds me of that bright, fresh enthusiasm.  And it’s inspiring.  We need that, not only to inspire future scientists but also to revitalize our own energy, our own youthful exuberance.   Brain Awareness Week gives us that and more.

The week also gives us a much more unique gift, one that can be elusive: the gift of community.  Through volunteering at the Sackler lab, I met my fellow neuroscientists at the Rockefeller University and NYU, who I have regrettably few encounters with outside of outreach.  Through CUNO, I get to know students from other departments at Columbia, who might otherwise remain distant acquaintances.  And events like The Story Collider allow scientists like me and others who care about science to come together, and have the rare chance to truly hear and be heard, as we share what cords bind us closely to the quest for understanding of the mind.  It is in these connections, made and reaffirmed each year, that I see the deepest value in Brain Awareness Week.  And it is these human connections that I seek to make and to strengthen year-round.  I often think back to the little girl who lingered so long with us at the museum, and how she must have felt when she announced, “This was the best day of my life.”

4baw2015The pupil becomes the master: a kid demonstrates how to make a pipe cleaner neuron. Image credit: Eileen Barroso for Columbia University.


ComeBeBraiNY makes the big time! – March 21, 2015

Check out our expert panel talking on NY1

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BioBase at Lower East Side Girls Club gives a 3-D tour of the Brain – March 20, 2015

by Ted Altschuler, Ph.D.

BB_event1Despite the fact that Avenue D seemed like an awfully long way to travel for a dose of neuroscience on a chilly afternoon, having experienced BioBase last year as a Brain Awareness Week volunteer, I wasn’t going to miss it. As school let out, neighborhood kids, teachers, and parents started filling the Lower East Side Girls Club for looks at hippocampi through the microscope, to learn about the electric signals the brain produces, the nervous systems of cockroaches, and to hold real brains in their hands.

BB_event7Meanwhile, upstairs in the amphitheater, visitors viewed and discussed TEDMED neuroscience talks on the brain-gut connection, one woman’s experience of being on the autism spectrum, and on how the brain refreshes itself during sleep.  We hear so often how far behind American students are in the sciences, but one group of fifth graders asked surprisingly  sharp questions and the high schoolers showed great interest in neuroscience of sleep.  Perhaps if you’re no’t getting enough, the next best thing is to learn about it!

BB_event6For the grand finale, we trooped up to the planetarium for a first-ever glimpse at a new film of the brain made to be projected on a dome. Neurodome is an exciting combination of technology, neuroscience, and art, creating the experience of touring through a three-dimensional brain at both the architectural level (traveling through brain structures as you would see them with the naked eye if you were small enough) and the microscopic level (traveling between brain cells). Rather than these images being the renderings of an imaginative artist, these were derived from actual lab data.  The result is extraordinary – I can’t wait to see their next project.

If you missed the BioBase event, their mobile science program BioBus will hold a Brain Awareness Week event this Saturday from 10 am to 4pm, click here for details.. Their city bus filled with state-of-the-art science equipment will park at Washington Square Park.

Every Brain Awareness Week experience is staffed by volunteer scientists, science students, and science educators, so if you would like to volunteer you can contact a venue directly or email us.  Please also email us if you would like information about future events.  The address is greaternycsfn@gmail.com.

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Dancing neurons open for talk on the future of neuroscience – March 18, 2015

By Ted Altschuler, Ph.D.

CStCaf_2CStCaf_1

Jody Oberfelder Dance Projects was the opening act last night for Gary Marcus’s packed book talk at the Cornelia Street Café, one of 30 Brain Awareness programs drawing New York audiences throughout March. The author and NYU neuroscientist engaged his crowd handily with a relaxed discussion of on The Future of the Brain, a compendium of essays by leading brain researchers that he recently co-edited with Jeremy Freeman (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Following in his dancers’ footsteps, Marcus began feistily, with a critique of the limits of his own field to understand how neural processes produce brain function and dysfunction. This provocation offered context for understanding why he considers the cutting-edge tools and methods written about in the book such significant advances. Audience questions allowed Marcus to ad lib impressively on topics ranging from computer simulation and big data to artificial intelligence and neural prosthetics, and to enjoy speculating on whether neuroscience might one day facilitate the uploading of a snap shot of an individual’s brain to a storage device and what, if anything, might be accomplished with that information. All this over the café’s grilled asparagus and steak frites – warming braiNY fare for a chilly evening.

As Oberfelder and her dancers are in the early phase of developing an immersive dance piece on cognition premiering in 2016, they invite you to participate in their survey on mind and thought by clicking here. Responses may become creative fuel for her new piece.

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Improvisations on Improvisation in the Sciences – March 10, 2015
by Ted Altschuler, Ph.D.

When I heard that the opening event of Brain Awareness Week this year was on the theme of improvisation and involved arts and science, I knew that I wanted to be the one to report on it.  I decided to do this blog as an improvisation; that is what follows.

Bearden_1
Romare Bearden. Poseidon, The Sea God, 1977. Courtesy Thompson Collection, Indianapolis, Indiana. Art © Romare Bearden Foundation

Improvisation 1
I am riding the subway on my way to Improvisation in the Sciences at Columbia. It’s the first event of Brain Awareness Week and involves musicians and scientists. Given the theme, and since I am both an artist and neuroscientist, I decided to improvise this blog, a little experiment. I’m feeling a bit nervous, like I’m performing myself. Before I left my apartment, I sat down to play a sonata on the piano, I thought it would get me in the mood but I was interrupted by a phone call letting me know that the subways were delayed. I ran out of the house. Having stopped the sonata in the middle, the strains are repeating unresolved in my mind’s ear. I am anticipating music on the program, but it probably won’t be this kind of music.

Improvisation 2
I arrive and shut my umbrella at the door of Earl Hall. A host greets me. She arranged my seat at the back of the room, so that my improvisation won’t disturb the audience. I thought I would be typing, but at the last minute, pen and paper felt more creative. So I am composing this silently after all and could have avoided sitting behind a giant, elegantly dressed English professor. On the way to the hall, I went to the men’s room and, on the door next to it was a sign on: ‘Footbath – for CU students, faculty, and guests only.’ Should I watch where I walk? Should I have worn easier shoes to remove?

Improvisation 3
Antoine Roney, the saxophonist, and his 10-year old son Kojo, a drummer have started to play. The music is, relentless. The father, despite the agitated line he is playing, looks as if he is praying. His son pounds his kit with a terrifying drive I can feel in my throat and stomach. The variegated rhythms follow each other with continued unpredictability, yet their progress seems inevitable, the ingredients of great improv. Usually talks open with someone fumbling as they try to sync their laptop with the projector. Now this is an opening to a neuroscience talk!

Improvisation 4
Moderator Martin Chalfie is being introduced as a chemist but works in the Biology Department, exploring how neurons facilitate sensation, making him neither a chemist nor a biologist – typical neuroscientist! He is a multidisciplinarian, a good fit for an evening inspired by visual artist Romare Bearden’s 1977 Black Odyssey, a cycle of color-saturated collages and watercolors based on Homer’s epic poem, showing at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery. Bearden’s themes of returning home and improvisation in life and art are the jumping off points for the riffs the contributors will make this evening.

Professor Chalfie is projecting a graph recording when in the last 30 years he has published papers on different topics in sensation. It shows that he has often abandoned ideas after working on them, returning to being productive years later, after they had had time to develop in his mind (returning home) or after an accidental discovery has led him to form new ideas (improvisation). The element of play is important to the process of science – let me write this down, Current Biology 2015, paper by Patrick Bateson – it is important because it allows enjoyment of the new and unexpected. I find play essential to performing, but don’t know that I bring it to doing science. Not like the physicist Richard Feynman, who played the bongos. Chalfie is talking about Feynman now, and also the biologist Alexander Fleming, who I associate with penicillin, but not so much with play. I’ll have to read that paper.

Improvisation 5
Music professor George Lewis is wearing a rumpled gray sweater and muttering to himself in that classic absent-minded professor sort-of-way. He is launching into a 2002 paper from Science. I love it. The trombonist on the panel starts with genetics! The Oxford English Dictionary definition of improvisation focuses on music. Music that is spontaneous, of-the-moment, embodies ­­fresh ideas – all true, but not enough, he says. Improvisation occurs across disciplines. We cannot pay attention to everything in the universe – yes, neuroscientific study of attention confirms that – we cannot control all aspects of our world. But we can change the plan when we encounter what we don’t expect. There is a security guard’s walky-talky squawking behind the curtain. This is distracting. Professor Lewis mimics it! He is improvising, showing us his adaptability as the environment gives him what he doesn’t expect. This, he posits, is a way we improvise in life. Did he pay that security guard? He speaks of improvisation in anthropology, in computer science – the Mars Rover is an example of computer as improviser. Can we study improvisation not by studying performers, he asks, as they are experts and therefore outliers, but study ordinary people performing tasks in circumstances for which they have no precedent? Creativity is all around us.   With obstacles and agency we see improvisation.

Improvisation 6
Neuroscientist Michael Shadlen plugs in his laptop. A jazz piece is playing. Sea Breeze by Romare Bearden, he tells us. Touche, our neuroscientist has begun with music.   If Professor Lewis talked about improvisation as expressed in behavior, then Shadlen looks at it on the cellular level. He is showing us an illusion via which, although the eyes take in information from static images, the brain perceives motion. This is because the perceptual system does not derive its output solely from its input. This is what I studied in the lab too! We say that the brain “makes predictions,” which is not exactly true since the brain is not a person, but the point is, and Shadlen is making it now, that visual perceptions are a product of input from the environment and predictions. He is telling us about his experiment which recorded electrical impulses from neurons in the brains of monkeys that were trained to move their eyes in response to a cue. The delay after the cue fell within a predictable range of time. After training, the monkey’s neurons accurately predicted this delay. They anticipated the pattern. When he changed the delay, the neurons adapted and anticipated the new pattern. Cognition bridges past and future, Shadlen says. I like that. Decisions are not capricious. Whether we are talking about a journey away from home or away from the beat, our very neurons interact with our environment. Improvisation is at the very core of decision making.

Improvisation 7
Millind Gajanan Watve has just flown in from India. He is jet lagged, he says in a high, musical, heavily-accented voice. He is called a professor of biology, but he is not a scientist. He writes poetry, but he is not an artist. What is he then? An explorer, he tells us. Professor Watve is playing music that sounds like synthesized stuff from the 1970s, like Manheim Steamroller, only from India. It was written by a computer, he tells us. There is also an algorithm which permits a computer to write poetry. He tests responses to human- and computer-composed art to try to understand what in the components of art produces the experience we have of it. What is its grammar? What lends it coherence? The professor is reading some of the computer’s couplets from a form of poetry known as Gazal. They are in Urdu. It has been an effort to understand him, so it is lovely to hear him read in his native language. I can’t understand the words, but I know I’m not supposed to. While the musician talked about behavior and the neuroscientist of neurons, our explorer looks at the art itself. Improvisation is about the balance of constraint and randomization, the expected and the unintended, he says. Art and science need two essential elements, ok here is the punchline, the tendency to randomize and recombine – that’s like DNA, and he said earlier that music and DNA are similar – and an ability to select and reject ingredients, that’s the agency that George Lewis spoke about.

Improvisation 8
Now it is time for questions. This is the part when I usually want to leave. People tell stories about themselves and don’t actually ask anything. I think I’ll see if any of the pictures I took came out. These are terrible. I took two of the young drummer and they are blurry. I’m thinking about the footbath in the basement. Perhaps it is a religious thing? The questioners have been coming up to the microphone: a quantum physicist, an anthropologist, someone with a political point to make about learning disabilities, a musician. This interests me less for the content of their questions than for illustrating George Lewis’s point that improvisation is relevant across disciplines. And it is in the spirit of Brain Awareness Week as it exemplifies the many portals through which different people can experience neuroscience. Hang on, someone just asked about inspiration. The artist in me wants to hear this. Lewis says that he doesn’t wait for it, and that if someone is to be creative, then the trick is to learn to recognize it in all its forms. Shadlen translates this into science. Since most cognitive processing happens below the level of consciousness, he thinks of inspiration as what happens when something pierces through into consciousness and you suddenly see a piece of the whole usefully. In a way this just happened to me when I heard this question and its relevance to me pulled me from distraction back to writing. He experiences this in the scientific process, he says, it is the art of science.

A neuroscientist in the audience is asking a question, the scientist in me wants to hear this. She fears that conducting experiments on creativity is reductionist. Shandlen is on a roll. Experiments are always limited to understanding some small aspect of a problem space and then we extrapolate from that. Even when we do explain something about a Coltrane composition, he is saying now, we haven’t explained it away. We might reveal some rudiment of a model to understand it, but we haven’t destroyed its beauty. And this brings us full circle, having begun the evening with a saxophonist. I make a big star next to this point in my notebook. As an artist and a scientist, I am happy to have come here just to hear that.

This first appeared in abbreviated form at The Dana Foundation Blog and can be linked here.

Ted Altschuler is co-chair of Brain Awareness Week events for the Society for Neuroscience Greater New York chapter. He has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, has directed theatre and opera and taught acting using improvisation. He blogs at http://bookeywookey.blogspot.com/ and tweets on the intersection of art and science, research and culture, data and story.

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The unexpected benefits of science outreach
by Paula Croxson, Ph.D.
Paula-Croxson-web
When I was asked to tell a story about science live on stage in front of an audience, my initial reaction was to say, “Yes!” I’m usually up for a new challenge. But straight away my reaction changed to, “I can’t do that!” I think a lot of scientists feel that way when we are approached to talk to the public.

The event was for the Story Collider, a live show where the performers get on stage and tell true, personal stories from their lives that involve science in some way. For me, talking live about science usually meant giving a presentation of my work to my peers, all emotional content removed. This was way out of my comfort zone. I had listened to some of the stories that others had told on their show; all remarkable accounts of unusual circumstances. But I had no idea what I could talk about – I had sort of wandered into my area of research, I had never had rare brain disease, and I had no amusing stories to tell about the characters I had worked with. I felt as if I had nothing to offer.

I know many scientists who got into their line of work in the same way. For me, the reason I did science was because I could. I was good at solving problems, doing careful, detailed work, working with my hands, coming up with ideas and testing them. I chose neuroscience because I didn’t have to choose; it was a mix of many different sciences, all rolled into one with the aim of understanding the ultimate problem: how our brains work. That was always enough for me, but when I was asked to talk about it in front of an audience, I began to think that maybe I needed a better reason; a more personal link to the disease I studied.

Well, there was one thing.  My grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease. But who didn’t know someone with Alzheimer’s disease? What was interesting about me telling people about symptoms they had already seen, feelings they had felt themselves, uncomfortable facts they already knew?

Still, I agreed to do it. I started to practice the story. Initially, it seemed as insignificant as I had imagined. My grandmother started to forget things; where we had gone, what we had done, the thread of a conversation. Big deal. But then she started to forget bigger things. She forgot who I was. She knew she had granddaughters, but she remembered us as little children. I was a teenager at the time and her forgetting me triggered an existential crisis. I wrote in my diary, “I don’t know who I am any more.” As an adult, struggling to remember the details of my own past, my own memories of my grandmother started flooding back, triggered by each tiny detail; a diary entry, a photograph, something funny she said.

As I started to clarify the story, I began to worry about something else, too. What if my own memory failed me? What if someone from my family heard this, and didn’t agree with my version of events? But then I came to realize my own version of events was rather special. My sister didn’t remember my grandmother fondly at all; she was too young when the memory loss started, and all she could remember was the frustration of being around my grandmother, and the changes that happened to her personality, making her less kind and loving, more impatient and unpleasant. I realized I was lucky to have some of the good memories left, too. And I started to form a connection with my grandmother.

A lot of practice later, I found myself at the Story Collider show.  And they put me last. By the time I got up to talk, I was pretty nervous. I had to follow five completely amazing stories told by five incredible and talented people. My biggest worry was: I’m going to forget what I was going to say. In a way, this connected me to my grandmother still more.

When I got up on the stage the lights were incredibly bright and I couldn’t see the audience very well, but I searched the dark for faces, wanting to engage with them, feel some kind of connection. I had been worried about forgetting something, but I didn’t forget a word. It might have gone well. But when I finished my story, I couldn’t gauge their reaction.

It wasn’t until the show was over and I left the stage that I could tell. And then people started coming up to me.  Not just the people I knew; people I had never met before. One came up and said “Thank you. My mother had Alzheimer’s disease, and it really helped me to hear that”. Another complete stranger asked to hug me. And then I got it. My story worked because I was talking about something that everyone knew about. I gave a voice to their experiences.

I’ve rarely felt a connection with so many people at once. But something else happened too. I felt a connection with the end result of my work. I realized that my work on memory could one day lead to a treatment, a cure, a therapy, for this devastating disease. Those connections, to those strangers, my work, my grandmother, my family, were results I never expected.

If you are thinking about taking part in science outreach, but you aren’t sure if you can, I urge you to do it – you’ll surprise yourself. Perhaps it will inspire other people to tell their story, make one person dream of becoming a scientist, or bring someone comfort in a hard time. If talking on a stage is not for you, try writing something, or even just striking up a conversation. You never know what the impact will be.

You can listen to Paula’s story here: http://storycollider.org/podcast/2013-03-24

Story Collider Image(1)

Photo by Ari Scott

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