Get to Know Brain Awareness Week Partners: An Interview with Ilsun White, Ph.D.

An Interview with Ilsun White, Ph.D., Morehead State University

March 19, 2011

Ilsun White - thumbnail

Ilsun White, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Morehead State University



Dana Foundation (DF): Since 2002, you, along with students and other faculty from Morehead State University, have visited high schools in eastern Kentucky to give presentations about drug abuse and the brain. Can you tell us about this initiative?

Ilsun White (IW): A high school visit in 2002 was the first activity I did for Brain Awareness Week (BAW) after I joined Morehead State University in the fall of 2001. According to U.S. government statistics, our service region, eastern Kentucky, has one of the highest rates of drug abuse in the country. Our BAW program emphasizes two aspects: community outreach and science information. We have visited high schools and presented our research related to drug addiction, given talks, and provided materials related to brain health.

Visits to local high schools are now a main activity in our BAW program and they take about three to four months to plan. Before we started making these visits, I contacted several groups: local high schools (principals, science teachers, and counselors) to see if they would be interested; the Dana Foundation and the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) to see what kind of education materials or support we could get; and students and faculty members at Morehead to see if they would be willing to contribute. All of the responses that I received were very positive: Principals, counselors, and teachers were very interested in having drug addiction and other topics related to the brain presented to their students; the Dana Foundation and SFN offered us free education materials to distribute; and undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members at Morehead wanted to participate.

Our high school visits involve several kinds of activities. We give lectures on the brain and drugs, which are aimed at advanced placement biology classes. One high school arranged for the entire school to attend the lecture in the auditorium. We also do demonstrations in smaller groups and classes. For instance, we show how operant conditioning (learning) procedures can be used to study the effects of drugs on learning—without any rat present, of course.

During lunch periods we set up tables near the cafeteria where students can ask questions and pick up brain-related materials. Throughout the year, I collect free educational materials from places such as the Dana Foundation and SfN for this purpose. Dana offers high quality booklets and pamphlets on brain science and a variety of incentives such as erasers, pencils, and stickers. The educational CDs from SfN contain brain-related information very useful to students.

We also display and present posters that we have previously presented at major meetings, such as SfN and the Association for Psychological Science. All of the Morehead students and faculty members who participate in these school visits have worked on drug-related research. The research has mostly involved animals, but we also do some research with humans, too.

At the high schools we talk about drug abuse, but we don’t just lecture students. We tell them about the research process and suggest ways that they can become involved in this kind of research themselves. One interesting factor I noticed over the years is that having young undergraduate students who graduated from the same high school they are visiting appears to heighten the interest of the high school students. High school students can be skeptical about our motives, but the issues we talk about interest them and their curiosity overcomes their skepticism, especially when a visit occurs each year. Some local high school students have even volunteered to work in our Behavioral Neuroscience lab. These are very important outcomes.

Another important aspect of this initiative is student learning, service, and leadership—Morehead students need to be trained before making visits to high schools. I help them prepare their talks and presentations and I review their presentations ahead of time. We also meet as a group and review the process (anticipating brain-related questions); those who have had experience go over the process while I help new volunteers understand the steps and resolve obstacles as they arise. Additionally, we ask high school students to volunteer during our visits by distributing materials and organizing presentations. These student volunteers need to have initiative and a good understanding of brain function. We’ve found that students want to participate, they learn a lot, and they do a very good job. We have received positive feedback from their teachers.

DF: How has your program for high schools grown/changed over the years?

IW: I started out small at first by holding only a few activities and concentrating on students at Morehead and at one local high school. We set up a couple of booths on campus (the student building was the best place) and distributed educational materials and talked with students. We also visited several classes to distribute the materials. For the high school, we worked out the complete slate of activities (simple to complex) before we considered visiting other high schools. If we had not expanded beyond our local high school we still would have felt that we were doing something valuable. We received good feedback each year from the school and other high schools approached us. We now visit high schools in four to five different counties in our region each year.

DF: Have you noticed an increased interest in neuroscience among the high school students since your program started?

IW: Yes, we have seen a significant increase in awareness and interest among high school students during our visits and in follow-ups after the visits. Students are particularly interested in the involvement of the brain in drug taking, emotion, learning, memory, and disorders. They are also interested in neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Each year I ask my students in my freshman Introduction to Psychology class “what would you like to learn about in this class?” Last semester, more than 95 percent of students said “how our brain controls our behavior.” It doesn’t get any better than this, does it? In the past, the most popular response was psychiatric disorders. Some of this increased interest may be due to our program. But much of it is likely due to an increasing appreciation for brain science generally.

DF: You work in a rural area. Do you think that makes the information you present even more valuable since resources may be less accessible?

IW: Our brain awareness activities take place in eastern Kentucky, which is rural. Those with the Internet have access to all sorts of information, and I’m not sure resources are less accessible to them. However, for those without access to the Internet, pamphlets or booklets are extremely helpful. Handing out printed materials to high school students and distributing the information to the community through them is important. A pamphlet or booklet seems more authoritative and sharable than a lecture or Web site. The hard part for students is figuring out what information is high quality or credible. To us, the critical issue is the source of the material. Materials from the Dana Foundation and SfN are research-based. We take these materials directly to individuals, emphasizing brain research, and begin to interpret it for them. These steps are essential if people are going to become educated about an issue.

DF: You also organize a brain drawing contest for students in grades K-6. How has this event brought together different groups within the university and community?

IW: The regional Brain Drawing Contest has been our most significant activity in terms of bringing together different groups. What amazes me each year is the level of enthusiasm of all involved—students, teachers, parents, and school administrators in the community; students, faculty, and the administrators at our institution. Everyone’s contributions and collaborative efforts have been essential to the program’s success.

In November-early January, we distribute brain drawing contest forms and instructions to principals and teachers (in art and science) at elementary and middle schools in the county public school system. School administrators encourage participation. Students and parents complete entry forms as part of a larger organized activity involving the study of the brain. School teachers drop off or mail the entries by the deadline. If we are a little late with information, parents and teachers contact me about whether we will have a brain drawing contest this year!

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First grader Kailey Smith's winning artwork from this year's annual Brain Drawing Contest. Picture courtesy of Ilsun White. 

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Fifth grader Stacy Wilson's winning artwork from this year's annual Brain Drawing Contest. Picture courtesy of Ilsun White. 

Undergraduate and graduate students from various disciplines at our institution help to log and assess the completeness of entries. For each grade we select first, second, and third place, and honorable mention entries. The final judging is done by a panel that includes faculty members from English, art, and psychology and a representative from the Rowan County Public Schools. Dr. Robert Franzini, Dr. Philip Krummrich, Dr. Lisa Mesa-Gaido, Mrs. Lucy Moore, and Dr. Wesley White have served on the panel since the beginning.

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Kindergartener Brandon Murray's winning artwork from this year's annual Brain Drawing Contest. Picture courtesy of Ilsun White. 

The award ceremony is held during BAW. The county board office contacts each school regarding student awardees and the award ceremony. School officials and teachers then contact students and parents. Undergraduate and graduate students help organize the ceremony.

Last year the ceremony was held in the Rowan County Board of Education Building. The room was filled with excited students and their parents. Mr. Marvin Moore, the superintendent, spoke at the ceremony, and he emphasized how the event reflected the excellent relationship between the university and the public schools. Each year, the winners receive a certificate from Dr. Gerald DeMoss, the dean of the College of Science and Technology, Morehead State University. Photos from the event appear in school publications and in a local paper. A recent SfN poster describing our BAW activities is displayed in the Rowan County Board of Education Building.

This is our fifth year organizing the Brain Drawing Contest. Quite a few students participate year after year. In another year an entire cohort of students will have completed this activity from K-6 grades. Think about the implications of this. Each year students are challenged to explicitly describe the importance of the brain, brain function, and health, and to depict this in a creative way. Across years they are challenged to do this in an increasingly sophisticated way. Our hope is that the cumulative effects of the Brain Drawing Contest will contribute to both education and drug abuse prevention.

DF: Are there any new events or additional elements to your previous events planned for this year?

IW: Our brain awareness program is a year-round program. Over a nine-year period, our program has expanded and now includes a variety of components, including high school visits, the Brain Drawing Contest, lab visits (4-6 grade science classes visit the Behavioral Neuroscience Lab), a guest speaker program, the Kentucky Brain Bee, and our recent initiative in senior centers.

This year, we plan to expand our seniors program to reach more people in the region. The project began in 2009, with the distribution of educational materials to more than 200 seniors in different counties. Their primary interests are memory, stroke, brain injury, and medication-related questions and our plan is to collect and distribute materials specific to these interests.