Brain Awareness Week Grantee Interview: Rossana C. Zepeda and Claudia Juárez-Portilla

Seimi Rurup
January 16, 2023
People sitting in a casual restaurant listening to speakers

An informal talk held at “El Farolito” in Mexico City

Rossana Citlali Zepeda, Ph.D., and Claudia Juárez-Portilla, Ph.D., are neuroscientists and faculty members of Universidad Veracruzana’s Biomedical Research Center in Mexico. For the past several years, they have been coordinating a series of free, public events for Brain Awareness Week, to shed light on the importance of neuroscience research and knowledge about the brain. Their institutions received an IBRO/Dana Brain Awareness Week Grant in 2022. 

Claudia Juárez-Portilla, Ph.D.
Rossana Citlali Zepeda, Ph.D.

Q: An important aspect of your Brain Awareness Week events is reaching lay people in casual environments, such as restaurants or cafés. What is it about an informal or less “academic,” environment that appeals to the public? 

Zepeda/Juárez-Portilla: We have noticed an increase in the number of people who every year get interested in this activity. As you mention, the informality of the event allows people to feel comfortable. In the end, it feels like a talk with friends while drinking coffee or a beer, letting the fear of being wrong stay outside. Everybody feels free to ask what they want to know. For instance, people are interested in knowing about psychiatric diseases because they always know someone who knows somebody else with symptoms. Other attendees want to learn about behaviors in kids with ADHD or autism because they want to know and understand that there are therapies available to provide kids with a happy life. 

Your team has produced brain fairs, lectures for children and adults, social media campaigns, and even a daily, month-long podcast called “Breves del Cerebro” (“Brain Briefs”). Was there a particular type of outreach you felt resonated most with your audiences? How about with your team? 

The pandemic period was a huge challenge for the development of Brain Awareness Week activities, so it was an opportunity to explore different strategies to impact more people and new audiences we may not have been able to reach in the past. Definitely, the informal talks in cafés and bars were the most attractive activities, as people were enthusiastic about participating. On the other side, our team enjoyed working on the podcast most because it was a new form of media for us. We created new collaborations with people from the radio station staff, who let us know that the door is open for further podcasts, and with colleagues who never did these kinds of activities. We learned the inner workings of a radio station from Universidad Veracruzana, and most of all, we discovered another way to reach a broad audience at once. 

At the start of planning, we established topics that we thought had the most impact on the daily life of our listeners. So, the first one we chose was the brain and Covid. Then we decided on topics related to sleep, because it’s something everyone does, and sometimes people are curious about what happens while we sleep. We also considered drug consumption as an opportunity to discuss what happens in the brain of users. Here in México, drug abuse is a health, economic, and social problem. When we defined the topics, everybody worked on the script, and the radio station staff helped us with the editing. After all that, we chose a member of the team who we thought had the perfect voice to record all the podcasts, which was our final product.

Elementary school students had the opportunity to learn and play with brain models, observe brain sections under a microscope, test their senses, and assemble puzzles relating to brain functions.

How has participating in Brain Awareness Week changed your approach to communicating science?

Brain Awareness Week provides a platform for scientists to link with non-academic audiences. In the last decade, science communication has taken an important place in the University’s various agendas, allowing the academic community to consider the importance of creating a communication channel with people, to understand the environment, to identify the problems that can be solved with science, and to produce results that can be shared with everybody, not just the academic community. It has also been a significant opportunity to have direct contact with students of all levels, from kindergarten to high school. It gives these students a chance to explore different fields and maybe even develop a scientific vocation. 

As a multidisciplinary group, we have learned so much thanks to the Dana Foundation website, IBRO resources, and Society for Neuroscience. 

Can you offer some tips for first-time event organizers looking to excite and educate their communities on brain science?

The most important thing to consider might be having fun while preparing for the activities. Avoid using technical and overly scientific terms in the content you want to transmit to audiences. The material you use for workshops or presentations must be very colorful, attractive, simple, and at the same time, didactic; this is the biggest challenge. Thinking about the context of different audiences will help you develop plans for the activities. 

Check out our Brain Awareness Week website and make plans for your own events next year!