Brain Awareness Week Partner Interview: Michael Friedlander

March 24, 2014

This is the first in a series of Brain Awareness Week (BAW) partner interviews, in which partners share their BAW experiences and tips for planning successful events. Michael Friedlander, Ph.D., is the executive director of Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Michael Friedlander speaks to an audience
Michael Friedlander, Ph.D., was the mastermind behind Brain School, a public lecture series in which the institute’s faculty members offered an owner’s manual on the brain.

Dana Foundation: Last year was the first time the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) participated in BAW as an official partner, planning eleven public events. The program included local school visits, seminars, and radio broadcasts about topics such as neuroplasticity as we age, nutrition and exercise, and willpower and addiction. How did you decide on these particular topics and were you happy with the public response?

Michael Friedlander: We assessed the local landscape to determine what sort of opportunities were available, what level of interest existed in various topics, and what groups we thought would benefit from the message we hoped to share–the excitement and promise of contemporary brain science. As we are in a fairly small market (about 100,000 in the city of Roanoke proper and about 300,000 in the surrounding communities), we utilized local media (TV, print news, and websites), reached out to the public school systems, and built on established networks of local interest groups that the VTCRI developed through its ongoing outreach programs.

The actual topics we addressed were developed in the context of local interest and need. For example, like many communities, there is considerable interest here in the brain aging process. The areas of nutrition and exercise were also of particular local interest as Roanoke has a vibrant and nationally recognized farm to table culture and considerable interest in community exercise programs such as those sponsored by our health partner, Carilion Clinic. The topics of willpower and addiction arose from a confluence of our own expertise at VTCRI and local interest in these topics. That is, from considerable publicity, the community is aware of the prominence of the VTCRI’s research programs in these areas and has expressed interest in learning about what type of work goes on in their own city. There is also considerable interest among parents’ groups, educators, and the public health community in understanding and addressing the challenges of substance abuse. Unfortunately, historically our area of the country still has a relatively high level of smoking. But there is increasing awareness of the public health consequences of nicotine addiction and the impact of one’s own decision-making on health that even the business community has expressed interest in learning more about these topics.

DF: “Mythbusters: The Truth about Your Brain” was an event for middle and high school students held in partnership with the Science Museum of Western Virginia. How did it work and what do you think the young people learned?

MF: This was one of several examples of a growing partnership between the VTCRI and the local regional science museum. I serve on the museum’s board and am working with them to develop a new brain exhibit in the newly renovated museum. We also run a kids’ science camp for the museum every summer at the VTCRI.

The myth-busters program was very interactive and enthusiastically received. Dr. Audra Van Wart, director of education and training at the VTCRI, was available and enthusiastic to present this program. There was considerable interest and awe among the young audience in response to her myths, leading them to ask questions and speculate as their confidence to challenge dogma and folklore grew over the course of the discussion. Even as they left, you could see the energy and inquisitiveness follow them into the street!

DF: A creative event from last year’s program was “Food for Thought: Chefs Celebrate Brain Awareness Week,” a challenge issued to restaurants to create and serve dishes with brain-healthy ingredients. How were restaurants recruited to this initiative and did you have a chance to sample the food? If so, any favorite dishes you can recommend?

MF: Hah! As I said earlier, we live in a relatively small city and many of us at the VTCRI know most of the restaurants in the area quite well. We did lots of recruiting over the first couple years of our existence so probably have participated in several hundred recruiting dinners. Thus, we reached out personally to several of the restaurants we knew but also invited all of the restaurants in town to participate.

Luckily for us, our senior director of communications at the VTCRI, Ms. Paula Byron, was able to coordinate with several restaurants and help them with suggestions of brain healthy foods. Several of the VTCRI folks did get to sample the food and there were some spectacularly innovative dishes. I recall a dish of braised sardines with a glass of red wine!

DF: VTCRI worked in partnership with local organizations and groups for several of its BAW events. Any advice for BAW partners looking to collaborate?

Sharon Ramey talks with children in paper brain hats
Sharon Ramey, Ph.D., introduced brain science to a class of second graders in Salem, Virginia. The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute professor emphasized such important brain boosters as good sleep, curiosity, and stimulation from nature.

MF: Get to know your community! I realize this isn’t always as easy as it might sound for a bunch of busy neuroscientists. However, we have found that reaching out in small ways can be very effective in establishing partnerships and giving the community a sense of ownership and pride in the brain research center and activities. Everyone is fascinated by brain science!

We run occasional open houses and tours of the VTCRI, and we run a public lecture series where we invite educators, members of the business community, retirees, health care sector professionals, politicians and elected officials, city workers, etc, to lay level talks given by some of the world’s leading neuroscientists. We also have established a strong partnership with the United Way, the Science Museum, the Art Museum, and the public schools. It is easy to build on these relationships when opportunities such as BAW activities arise.

DF: Brain Awareness Week is fast approaching. What types of events does the Institute have planned for this year?

MF: Since our brain school was such a success, we are running it again but with a completely new program. We are launching it with one of our public lectures (Dr. Helen Mayberg from Emory University on DBS and psychiatric treatment for depression), followed by a series of our in-house VTCRI neuroscientists speaking on the assembly of the brain; social relationships in brain development and plasticity; and the learning, remembering, and forgetting process. We will also run open house tours of the VTCRI, send our neuroscientists to a range of schools from grade to high school, do a program on art and the brain, and extend our brain food program.

DF: You’re a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, which is committed to public outreach about the brain and brain research. What advice would you give to other Alliance members looking for ways to get involved in the campaign?

MF: Don’t underestimate the ability, passion, and willingness of your young neuroscientists (postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, junior faculty) to be effective communicators of brain science. Give them a chance and don’t just leave it to the established senior folks like many of us in the Dana Alliance. Make sure to have a good discussion with anyone you send out to the community about the target audience and effective communication to prepare them to communicate at the appropriate level and avoid giving research seminars. Don’t think that it’s too late if you’re not involved yet. Focus on one thing and get started–perhaps an open house or a school program. You will be amazed and gratified at the level of interest and appreciation for coming out of our ivory towers and engaging our communities and neighbors!