Learning about the brain is a smart move, says neuroscientist and Assistant Professor of Psychology Kristin Scaplen, Ph.D. As co-chair of Brain Week Rhode Island 2023, she’s helping to make brain science accessible to everyone by sharing what we know about the brain and brain health—and inspiring the next generation of researchers.
Since 2016, Brain Week Rhode Island (BWRI), part of the global Brain Awareness Week campaign, has brought together experts from an array of disciplines with community partners to host fun and educational learning opportunities for all ages. The events increase public awareness of the benefits of brain research, educate people about brain health, and shine a spotlight on Rhode Island’s neuroscience community. This year’s Brain Week, held March 11 to 19, will feature school visits and “Brain Fairs” in both Pawtucket and at Brown University that are free and open to the public.
Brain Week takes brain science from the laboratory and the lecture hall to the people, says Scaplen. “You can spend so much time in the lab working on really important questions and publishing and sharing the science you’ve done with other scientists. But the work you do ultimately affects the wider community,” she reflects.
The Brain Fairs—which include sessions on a range of topics, opportunities to learn more about local resources, and activities hosted by community partners—are the ultimate expression of that mission. “One of the things that we thought about with Brain Week is about how to get more people involved and bring them in,” says Scaplen. “We asked ‘What if, instead of asking people to come to our ivory towers, we went to them instead?’”
Fun with a purpose
BWRI’s events mix important facts and information with hands-on learning experiences that help audiences of all ages understand complex concepts and ideas. “When students can interact with the material in creative, fun ways, it draws their attention and makes it more accessible,” says Scaplen. “I can talk to you about a neuron or about the brain, but if I put an actual brain in your hands and you can see it and feel it, that makes that material come to life."
“When you hold a brain you realize, ‘This is what holds all of my memories. This is where my personality comes from, my consciousness.’ I think that there’s power to that,” she notes.
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Scaplen, a prolific researcher currently studying how the brain creates and stores memories, hopes those powerful moments help recruit a new generation of neuroscientists. “Neuroscience is one of the fastest moving fields and it’s interdisciplinary by nature,” she explains. “It looks at really complex questions that require diverse minds and skillsets to approach those questions in different ways.”
That’s why it’s so important to engage members of the community in an inclusive way, Scaplen says. “The questions people are interested in are often based off their own experiences, so we need to have a more diverse population of people who are really creative and curious to help us answer some of these questions. We need a really diverse group of people coming at a question from different angles and working together collaboratively.”
The benefits of Brain Week are valuable to everyone, says Scaplen—not just aspiring scientists. “So many of us know someone who has Alzheimer's disease or knows somebody who has Parkinson's disease or who suffers from depression or anxiety,” she points out. “We know that understanding the brain better is going to help us understand the human condition.”
A passion for learning more
Scaplen traces her interest in neuroscience to her experience interning as a pre-med student. “I felt a little bit frustrated because so many of my questions about the brain just didn't have answers,” says Scaplen. “And I realized, well, there's actually this whole other field where you could ask your own questions and try and answer them while still helping people because by better understanding how the brain works, it better informs how we can treat patients.”
After changing her path to neuroscience, she quickly realized she had a talent for sharing her passion for learning with others. “When I started as a graduate student, somebody asked me to come out to a school and talk about the brain and memory,” she remembers. “When I saw the excitement in those students’ faces, it just hooked me right away. I thought, ‘Man, I want to do that again.’ ”
With Brain Week, she can spark those flashes of inspiration beyond the classroom. And that inspiration, Scaplen says, can sometimes strike both ways. “The questions that students ask me are really fantastic and sometimes you realize ‘Oh, you know, I don't actually know the answer to that,” she notes. “And if we don't know, isn't that a cool thing to think about and investigate?”
The Pawtucket Brain Fair will be held on March 12 at Hope Artiste Village at 1005 Main St #1201 in Pawtucket, RI
The Brown Brain Fair will be held on March 18 at Brown University's Engineering Research Center at 345 Brook St. in Providence, RI