By Ellen Tsaprailis
Photos by Chris Roussakis
The Society for Neuroscience Ottawa Chapter, comprised mostly of Carleton University volunteers, has won the Society for Neuroscience’s 2018 Chapter of the Year (COY) Award—a prestigious recognition of its unique outreach in teaching people about the brain.
Neuroscience Prof. Alfonso Abizaid and students with SfN Ottawa accepted the honour at the SfN annual meeting in San Diego, California on Nov. 5, 2018, billed as the world’s largest neuroscience conference with about 30,000 scientists attending.
Ottawa is only the second Canadian chapter to have won the award.
Abizaid has been involved with SfN Ottawa for 10 years. It’s run by volunteer staff and students, mostly from Carleton, and he was elated by the win.
“I was extremely happy and proud for the students, who do a lot of the work,” said Abizaid. “To the students, it means what they are doing is really valuable to the community and that it is recognized by others . . . not just me or colleagues in the department.
“It does take a lot of time and dedication to do it. The people who step up to do it are really amazing.”
The COY Award recognizes outstanding chapters for their efforts and accomplishments across a broad range of activities. Recipients receive a US$1,000 grant to support chapter goals and programs.
Neuroscience PhD student Gareth Rurak has been with the Ottawa chapter for five years and is currently the chapter’s president.
“I am beyond excited and filled with gratitude for us to be chosen by the Society for Neuroscience as Chapter of the Year,” he said. “It is a great honour for our hardworking volunteers.”
Boosting Involvement in Sciences
SfN Ottawa’s main focus is community education and boosting involvement in the sciences. During Brain Awareness Week each January, student volunteers present hot topics and concepts in neuroscience to Ottawa-area schools.
“There’s nobody who does as much as we do,” said Abizaid. “For Brain Awareness Week, for instance, we visit over 40 schools every year, and that’s not just one classroom at a time. When we do a school, we go and see three or four classrooms—so we’re looking at 2,000 kids over one week.”
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Abizaid uses the example of a recent call he received from an Ottawa elementary school requesting that SfN Ottawa present specifically about addiction because that is what Grade 6 teachers are covering in their curricula.
“So, we’re integrating ourselves into elementary and high school curricula to talk about different things, whether it’s on brain awareness or they’re teaching a specific class and they want an expert to talk,” said Abizaid.
“Sometimes teachers will talk about addiction and students are like yeah, yeah, yeah . . . But if they see a university student who looks cool, it’s a completely different message. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re partnering with teachers and the school board to integrate our material into their curricula and I think that’s something that not many people do in brain awareness talks around the world.”
Neuroscience Demonstrations Boost Brain Awareness
Beyond travelling to schools in Ottawa, the chapter has created interactive neuroscience demonstrations at the Canada Science and Technology Museum and the Canadian Museum of Nature.
“The brain awareness campaigns we have created have been a huge success with schools, and last year we had more than 500 people visit us at our museum exhibits,” said Rurak.
SfN Ottawa also hosts a brain bee club, which is an international competition about the brain. Graduate students host upper-year high school students in comprehensive classes about the brain in preparation for the regional, national and international parts of the annual competition.
The annual Brain & Mental Health Art Show is another successful initiative. The chapter gathers artwork donated by people in the Ottawa community and creates a pop-up gallery at Lansdowne Park. People bid on the art, enjoy food and drinks, and the proceeds go toward a non-profit organization that provides affordable, subsidized housing for people living with severe mental health challenges.
“We started doing the art show eight years ago,” said Abizaid. “We were the first ones and now a lot of chapters are doing it all over the world because they like the idea of integrating art with the brain and creativity. We are very proud of it and we are very proud of the chapter.”
Rurak emphasized that the chapter’s innovative work comes mainly from graduate neuroscience students, as well as some upper-year undergraduates.
“The greatest part of this is that everyone involved is a volunteer and we do this because we are all extremely passionate about mental health awareness and science awareness in Ottawa and larger communities,” said Rurak.
SfN is the world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and the nervous system. Founded in 1969, SfN has nearly 36,000 members in more than 95 countries.
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