Amy Altick, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Biology, has received the Regent's Outstanding Outreach and Engagement Faculty Award for her work bringing brain science to the local community. Since joining the University, Altick has been deeply involved in student and community engagement and awareness activities related to neuroscience. She serves as faculty liaison to the Cognitive Brain Science Outreach Graduate Club and Secretary and Treasurer of the local chapter of the Society for Neuroscience. Outreach efforts by Altick include coordinating activities during National Brain Awareness week, planning presentations for K-12 classrooms, organizations such as Patagonia, the Nevada Discovery Museum and at the juvenile service center. Much of her outreach efforts are focused on engaging with often underserved populations and schools. Altick is also an alumna of the University with her Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Below, she answers a few questions about her involvement in neuroscience outreach, the impact she hopes to have on both the community and her students, and the hook she uses to get people excited about brain science (hint: it's a no-brainer).
What drew you to the field of neuroscience? Was there a particular experience or moment in your education or life that piqued your interest in the field?
I have always been interested in how the brain works. I chose to do my graduate work on brain development, specifically how neurons find their target and wire up the brain. Even with a deeper understanding of how the brain is setup and works on a molecular level, I was still interested in bridging the gap between the molecules and behavior. What is it exactly about the brain that creates personality—for example, sense of humor or favorite color or introversion versus extroversion? It seems that scientists understand all the concepts that make organs and tissue function, for example, the liver. We know about cell signaling and gene expression, and energy requirements, etc., so eventually, we will be able to understand everything about the liver. But, not so the brain, the same cell biology concepts just don’t seem to explain how the brain does what it does. For me the brain is fascinating. I really enjoy engaging with neuroscientists and listening to their ideas. They always leave me with something new to think about.
What is your teaching style? How do you engage your students in complex subjects?
I teach entry-level cell biology and upper-division cell biology, as well as senior-level lab courses. My goal with teaching is to develop “thinkers.” To do this I constantly ask the students, “what if…” to encourage them to apply concepts and think broadly. All of my classes use group work and collaboration to encourage the students to share knowledge and brainstorm solutions to problems. In lab, we talk a lot about troubleshooting and alternative results. Science seems to draw students that like a challenge, a puzzle to solve. I try to present the subjects as puzzles that we are putting together as we learn concepts and processes that are all necessary for understanding the whole picture.
How and why did you get involved in neuroscience outreach? Why do you think sharing information about brain science, in particular, with our community is important?
My involvement in outreach started about ten years ago when Dr. von Bartheld, a neuroscientist at the medical school, founded the local chapter of the Society for Neuroscience. I was a post-doctoral fellow in his lab at the time, so I was recruited to be the Secretary/Treasurer of the new Neuroscience Chapter; a position I still hold today. One of the missions of the Society for Neuroscience is outreach—community education. The first year, Dr. von Bartheld visited his daughter’s elementary school, and I visited a few after-school programs. From that beginning, our outreach grew from a one-week/year effort to a year-round program. Clearly, the community, primarily elementary schools and middle schools, and teacher groups, welcomed a free, interactive, and interesting presentation on the brain. In time, presenters were recruited from my classes, undergraduate student clubs, and neuroscience graduate students. Our goal is to inspire, excite, and hopefully, at the same time, educate a community group on some aspect of neuroscience. Our process is to share up-to-the-minute information about neuroscience, the ongoing research at the University, and ourselves, as representatives of the student body at the University. Through this process, the presenters gain real-life experience with using their education outside of exams and papers, increase their confidence in their knowledge, and most importantly, remember and relive their own enthusiasm for learning, through the interactions and reactions of their audience.
What impact do you hope your outreach efforts have on both the public you serve and the students you work with?
As mentioned, outreach started as an interesting assignment as part of our new membership in the Society for Neuroscience. But outreach has become integral to my classes and activities. The goal of our presentations is to reach each audience member and give them some new understanding or even some new questions about the brain. In addition, we would love to think that we are enriching the entire audience, giving the members a shared experience that they can discuss or mull over or even research to learn more. And finally, as a broad impact, we hope that by presenting at various community centers and events, we bring awareness to the research and education that is happening at the University. As for the students who are actually doing the outreach, I have realized that they benefit at least as much as their audience. They’ve related to me that “This was the most awesome experience of my undergraduate career.” And “I can’t believe how much fun I had, and I was so scared to do it.”
Often, your outreach efforts are focused in K-12 schools that serve low-income families. You also coordinate an annual presentation at the juvenile service center. juvenile detention center. Why have you chosen to focus on these often underserved populations?
We are happy to visit any school that invites us. And it turns out that we started visiting the middle schools in particular where our alumni had teaching positions. It was a coincidence that these schools drew a large percentage of their students from low-income regions of the city. Once we were known, we were invited back to STEM Fairs and Science Fairs. We also reached out to our contacts, asking to bring our other projects into their classrooms. Projects such as peer-reviewing science written for K-12 students was another way to engage these students in science. While we love sharing neuroscience, we are also aware that we are presenting an example of what a college student looks like. We hope that these students recognize that anyone can be a college student, that we are just like their neighbor or a regular person on the street. At these schools, we include a question and answer session about college and goals and education. We keep it light but offer the opportunity for the students to see college as a reachable goal. Like our connection to the middle schools, our connection to the juvenile service center began with an email from a former student. She asked me if we would be able to tailor a presentation for her students. We agreed, she coached us, and we designed a presentation that we hoped would incite curiosity and engage our audience. Again, we included a brief overview of resources and support available to help a student get into and succeed at the University. This particular experience has been extremely impactful for all of the presenters that have participated. We hope that we made an equally significant impact on the students at the center.
Being able to communicate science with the general population, and to do it well, is a skill essential to developing a culture of science advocacy and support. What advice do you have for students and faculty hoping to share their complex research with the general population?
Neuroscience is easy to talk about because everything can be related to Neuroscience… well in my opinion. At our presentations, we often begin by asking two questions: What did your brain do for you today? What did you do for your brain today? From this starting point, we can meet the audience at their level and build on what they already know. Our presenters are very good at taking a question or comment and developing it into a mini-lesson on some related topic in neuroscience. So, I guess one of the keys to our presentations is figuring out what the audience is interested in learning. For example, when we present at community centers, our audience is older, often retirement age and older. We prepare for questions about age and dementia and we often present on vocabulary and neuroanatomy related to the aging brain. But at the same time, we bring in a recent news article that we can explain in-depth and add background, thus giving our audience new information they can share with others. Lucky for us, neuroscience is in the news almost every day.
And of course, like any good book or movie, we use a hook to grab the audience’s attention. We *bring real human brains to our presentations. A brain, something everyone can sketch, something everyone recognizes, something everyone knows about and at the same time doesn’t know anything about. In my experience, most people are awestruck when they see a real brain. When we check-in for presentations at schools, we’ve been asked by the office staff: Are you the group with the brains? Then the next question is: May we see them?
*the brains are lent to us by the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine.