BAW Partner Interview: Kelley Remole

This is the second in a series of Brain Awareness Week (BAW) partner interviews, in which partners share their BAW experiences and tips for planning successful events. Kelley Remole, Ph.D., is the director of neuroscience outreach at Columbia University and the co-president of the Greater NYC Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.

Dana Foundation: Last year marked the first time that the Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience coordinated a Brain Awareness Week program with multiple partners under the umbrella name of “braiNY.” What inspired this initiative?

Kelley Remole: A lot of pieces came together to make the public, coordinated events of braiNY seem like a logical step. The Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience had been quietly growing for several years, and a number of scientists at institutions around the city started taking a serious interest in engaging the public with science. I was newly in a position at Columbia University where I could make something bigger happen at the institution, and I knew people at other universities including NYU and Mount Sinai who could likely do the same. By word of mouth, and with the encouragement of the Dana Foundation, this small handful of scientists grew into the group of dedicated individuals that put together the inaugural year of braiNY events in 2013. I don’t think any of us knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into, only that it was fun and that these events filled a need for scientist-driven public engagement about science.

DF: Large universities like New York University and Columbia participate in braiNY, but also smaller groups like the monthly science story-telling group Story Collider. How do you recruit organizations to the program and how has the diversity among organizations allowed you to reach different segments of the NYC population?

KR: A diversity of groups and venues is crucial for attracting a diverse audience. The university-centered approach arises naturally when recruiting volunteer scientists who have inside access to universities’ resources. braiNY has successfully expanded beyond academic institutions to partner with cultural groups in New York City that have built-in audiences of people looking for new and exciting things. The benefits are mutual: braiNY can offer these groups access to resources at universities (such as scientists), as well as new publicity outlets. Our recruitment efforts are limited to word of mouth and an occasional invitation to join–and we welcome groups who hear about us and want to join our efforts.

DF: A number of the braiNY events require the help of volunteers, often neuroscience graduate students. How do you recruit these volunteers and how do they rate their experience?

KR: Graduate students and other early career scientists have the necessary science background for these events and they have an infectious enthusiasm about what they themselves are still learning about. They can be the most creative contributors in our team–they aren’t set on one way of doing things and, as scientists, are trained to think about problems creatively. Furthermore, the presence of scientists makes these events more popular–it’s not every day that people can ask an expert their questions about the brain. Faculty scientists often contribute in more traditional ways like as keynote speakers at many of the high-profile events. Their contributions motivate the audience as well as the younger scientists who are involved. Feedback is uniformly positive–volunteers come away energized after talking about their passion with a new audience.

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Kids at the American Museum of Natural History test the electrical activity of their muscles with the help of neuroscientist Kara Marshall.

DF: After a successful pilot year (The Greater NYC Chapter won the Society for Neuroscience Chapter of the Year award in 2013 in large part for its work on braiNY) and some thoughtful evaluation, what have you changed for this year’s program? Is there any advice you’d give to other organizations or Society for Neuroscience chapters looking to develop a similar initiative?

KR: I would tell other groups and individuals that you don’t know what you’re capable of until you try. In our first meeting or two leading up to braiNY 2013, we didn’t have a firm plan in mind. But we had some guideposts like hosting brain fairs at a few universities, and our events and connections grew from there. The initial braiNY members weren’t afraid to show their enthusiasm and dedication, and that spurred others to give their best.

All of our events are registered through the Dana Foundation’s Brain Awareness Week partners program, which is hugely important for supporting individual events. The additional layer of organization and resources gained through the local chapter of the Society for Neuroscience has brought in a diversity of voices and ultimately resulted in many more events than would have happened individually. We found that the local and coordinated angle of braiNY motivates people who would otherwise hesitate to bring a new event to the mix.

As a final note–we are consistently thrilled to see the hunger that people demonstrate about learning about the brain. With the right kind of event and a little bit of targeted promotion, these brain-themed events are consistently popular. There’s no more personal science than neuroscience, and audiences of all ages are drawn to it by a natural curiosity.

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At the 2013 Brain Expo at Columbia University, visitors were welcomed by Kelley Remole and Huang Yu (Assistant Professor at Columbia and Co-President, Greater NYC SfN Chapter).

DF: What kind of events can we look forward to during this year’s Brain Awareness Week and where can we find out about them?

KR: This year’s programming has matured in some ways compared to last year by being more interdisciplinary. Film buffs will get excited about “Neural Imagining: The Brain Seen through Film,” music lovers will be drawn to “Music and the Mind,” and space enthusiasts will want to catch Neurodome at “Brain-Gazing.” Those who like to be active should check out “Jumpstart Your Brain,” “NeuroYoga,” and “Neurotango.” Other events explore mental health, aging, and sports injury, so there’s really something for everyone. Also returning this year are three brain fairs, Staying Sharp, and exciting partnerships with the Biobus, American Museum of Natural History, StoryCollider, and The Rubin Museum.

With over 30 events taking place in March around New York City, people have a lot to choose from. Our event calendar and map on the website comebebrainy.com help narrow down the list of events by dates and locations. The titles alone will make people want to be in more than one place at once! Neuroscientists still haven’t figured out how the brain would be capable of that. There’s always next year.

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