Exploring the Personal Side of Science

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A collegiate swim team, uncontrollable diarrhea, an uncle’s drum solo, green Jell-O, and getting lost in the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, may seem like unlikely elements at a Brain Awareness Week event. But not at the annual “Studying the Brain: A Storytelling Event hosted by The Friedman Brain Institute,” which highlights personal stories from Mount Sinai students, fellows, and professors. Five brainy participants stepped out of the lab and classroom and onto the stage of El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in Manhattan, to share real life events that unexpectedly influenced their scientific journeys. Paula Croxson, assistant professor of neuroscience and psychiatry and the 2018 SfN Science Educator Award recipient, and Casey Lardner, Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, hosted the BraiNY event.

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“Intelligent Nightlife” and The Time Traveling Brain

Guest post by Brandon Barrera

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Image: Caveat

The night promises to unfurl a bit of mystery. A cryptic figure tells us there has been a crime–sort of. We will come to learn that there is, indeed, a victim but the crime is not one in the traditional sense. The crime scene is the brain and episodic memory-loss the perpetrator. We’re told that with a little sleuthing, we can get closer to the truth.

This dramatic performance is the Mark Kennedy-McClellan directed “The Talks Progress Administration: The Time Traveling Brain,” a staged talk brought to life at Caveat in New York City on Tuesday. One of many events showcased during Brain Awareness Week (BAW), the piece feels similar to a long form TED talk, mixed-in with interactive story-telling. Our narrator frequently steps off-stage and into her “lab” (see: audience) to ask questions about breakfast, to squirrel away treats among audience members, and even hand out glowsticks. All done in the name of science, to be sure, and it’s effective in creating fun, illuminating narration.

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Pint of Science: Perception

Many factors weigh into how we perceive the world, and last night we tapped into two areas: hearing and memory, at a “Pint of Science” gathering at DROM in the East Village. Beer in hand, attendees packed the venue, eager to learn more from hometown scientists James Hudspeth of Rockefeller University and Paula Croxson of Mount Sinai.

Hudspeth, a Dana Alliance member and hearing expert, spoke about how hearing works, and the role of tiny hair cells in the cochlea. As explained on his Howard Hughes Medical Institute page, “Each cochlea normally contains about 16,000 hair cells, which convert mechanical inputs derived from sounds into electrical signals that the brain can interpret.”

It is the loss of these hair cells, which don’t regenerate in humans, that leads to the most common form of hearing loss, said Hudspeth. Lucky for us, other species can regenerate these cells (amphibians and reptiles, for example). Dr. Hudspeth is using zebra fish in his lab to study this ability; he hopes new therapies can be produced for people in the next five to ten years. In the meantime, cochlear implants are being used by more than 300,000 people in the US.

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braiNY Storytelling

On Monday night at Union Hall in Brooklyn, Story Collider and braiNY (the New York celebration of Brain Awareness Week) joined forces for a fabulous night of storytelling. Six people from different walks of life told personal stories that involved something to do with brain awareness. Some stories revolved around disease or trauma (which apparently can stem from dating a philosophy of the mind professor), while others focused on the career twists and turns that led them to be neuroscientists.

Of the latter, we had Mike Nitabach of Yale School of Medicine, and Stuart Firestein of Columbia University. Both dabbled in two professions before ultimately choosing neuroscience as a career. For Nitabach, an associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology and of genetics, neuroscience was not an immediate calling. In fact, he went to college with a legal career in mind. But after an interest in philosophy of the mind (no relation to my previous mention) led him to the biological sciences, he followed that path to graduate school to get his PhD. in neuroscience at Columbia.

In graduate school, Nitabach found the intense research of one “thing” to be a bit stifling. In college you learn about the breadth of the field, he explained, but in grad school, you need to focus on one thing for five years. “And it’s a privilege,” he quipped. He began to think about law again, and when he graduated from Columbia, he signed up for three more years of graduate school—this time law school. After taking the bar and before starting an internship, he visited an old neuroscience graduate school friend at his new lab at New York University. Cue instant lab-envy.

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