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Each year, the Society for Neuroscience recognizes outstanding neuroscientists who have strongly added to public education and awareness about the field. The Dana Foundation sponsors these awards. This year’s award was presented to Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Brain Imaging Research Center (BIRC) at the University of Connecticut and director of the Laboratory for Learning Engineering and Neural Systems (brainLENS.org) located at UConn/UCSF, during the society’s annual meeting, in San Diego, on Tuesday.
Q: Was it a conscious decision for you to do a lot of education and outreach, as well as research?
Dr. Hoeft: Yes. The experience of education and outreach is not so different than what we do as physicians. I always wanted to be a physician: In my elementary school graduation album I wrote, “I want to be a physician and help the underserved.” When I started research at Harvard, three years after graduating from medical school in Japan, I missed clinical work and interacting with people terribly.
So, to get “my fix,” I started my first major outreach effort, co-founding the World Association for Young Psychiatrists and Trainees (WAYPT) in 2003 with other young psychiatrists to focus on training of junior psychiatrists in training. Now WAYPT is part of the educational program of the World Psychiatric Association. Coming to the US, I became acutely aware of how many of us, especially those from overseas, are very unprepared in terms of harassment, ethical conduct of research, and so on, including myself. Since then, I have been fortunate to be part of creating centers and organizations that provide a platform to integrate research, translation and practice in different ways. These include the UCSF Dyslexia Center, NSF Science of Learning Collaborative Network, University of CA Office of the President’s 7-university Precision Learning Center and Haskins Global L2 (Language & Literacy) Innovation Hub.
It took me several more years until I got really into education and outreach to the general public, after my postdoc, and most heavily since I moved to UCSF in 2012. While I loved doing research, I missed communicating with patients and families. So this was an outlet for me, but now these are mostly replaced by children, families, educators, practitioners, and other researchers.
But I was horrible at it at first! My childhood nickname at school was “Fumiko who blushed” (in Japanese SEKIMENSHO-NO FUMI-CHAN). I look back at my first talks that I gave at a disabilities event, or at a conference for educators and parents, and they are horrible! I remember my sister coming to one of the earlier talks and she commented how there was one cartoon in there and how the audience laughed (she meant it as a compliment); all the other slides were straight out from my research talks, way too complicated. So I tasked myself to do more professional development, and give seminars to parents and science classes to students so that I can be a better communicator. I remember being so nervous when I gave my first science field trip, which was to kindergarteners!
I feel like my turning point was when I stopped thinking about what I wanted to tell the audience, and thought about “if I were them, what would I want to hear?” Now, every time I give a talk, even if the material may overlap heavily from another talk, I sit down with a piece of paper, and draft out my talk closing my eyes, imagining myself being in the audience. Even then, I sometimes go back to my ego-centric talks by packing too much material in and going too fast, but then I get feedback, regret and learn, and move on.
This change in perspective also changed my research. I have been doing a lot more “user/public”-centric research lately in addition to NIH/NSF-funded basic cognitive neuroscience research. For example, we are developing and validating an evidence-based and gamified free app that assesses school-readiness and dyslexia risk called AppRISE. It is also meant to be integrated with evidence-based resources and tools. The project is funded by forward-thinking organizations such as the Schwab Foundation and individuals through the UCSF Dyslexia Center. (Please contact us at info@precisionLearningCenter.org if interested in becoming a local or global partner in testing it out and for early access). We also have created a Socio-Emotional Toolkit that assesses strengths and weaknesses in socio-emotional competencies in children with learning differences/disorders, dyslexia, or ADHD. This tool also provides evidence-based resources to students, families and educators, and is funded by Oak Foundation. These ideas all came from talking to parents and educators and “co-creating” these with them.
Q: What is most satisfying about connecting to people this way? What was most surprising?
A: I am most gratified when I hear students walking down the hallway at school and saying how the science class was the best class of the year, or they tell me how the science class made them want to be neurosurgeons or neuroscientists. Sometimes, I see parents and educators in my audience for the third or fourth time and they come up to me later saying that they are groupies! I love, love, love that now my lab members, even when I tell them they are doing so much so there is no need to do more outreach, they actively go out, ignoring my suggestion. What was most surprising was that I am learning that anyone (me) can actually get quite good at this if you do it enough!
Q: Did you have a model or a mentor for this work? Have any advice for fellow scientists on reaching out?
A: I have had many absolutely fantastic research mentors but not exactly a mentor I can point to that got me started for this work. In recent years, I’ve met colleagues who are doing this around the world that inspire me, and I see many junior colleagues who are active on social media, who tirelessly work with advocacy groups and parents, and who work on state and federal policies to provide evidence-based information. I get inspired by these individuals.
To fellow researchers who have done little outreach, I would love for you to try, even if in baby steps because: (1) it keeps you going when you have a bad day, e.g. your grant gets rejected and your paper gets criticized, (2) it gives you ideas if not at least inspiration for research, even if you do very basic research, (3) although many researchers shy away from communicating with the public or media because they think it will get them into trouble (e.g. colleagues may think you are being self-promotional, media will blow your work out of context), I believe shying away is not the answer and actually the central problem. If you think media has mis-portrayed your or your colleague’s work, then talk to them rather than walking away, (4) in my type of work in cognitive neuroscience, it helps give me research ideas, recruit research participants and even has led to research funding.
When I am offered an honorarium, these days, I ask if they could “donate” it to our institution/lab instead. This has helped tremendously in further fueling our efforts. We acknowledge those organizations who have “donated” to our lab. I highly recommend doing this. People love being part of the movement to further outreach and research.
Q: How important is it to you to do outreach now?
A: It’s essential. It’s tiring sometimes, as typically, outreach is still less valued for academic careers than research, grants, and scientific papers, so you have to do it on top of the regular things required as an academic. I have been fortunate to be at public universities in recent years (UCSF and now at UConn), and I do feel like they do value outreach and services more than some other universities. But it’s so important and essential for my psychological well-being, as well as for my research and career.
I believe that we as neuroscientists have the moral responsibility (whether or not you are receiving public taxpayer’s money) to translate our work to the public. It does not have to be on your latest Journal of Neuroscience paper: Some established research findings from decades ago are still not translated. For example, there are several risk factors that can easily be measured to predict risk for reading failure – currently occurring in about one-third of all US children. We also know that early identification is much more effective, and every year a child waits is so devastating. But yet, early screening is not done in most states. So information like this can and should be translated to help change policy and how we allocate money in public education.
But it’s not just us who should be working on outreach. We need to train the next generation, so they can “be stewards of neuroscience.” The hope is that if we work with young people now, they will more likely grow up to be researchers, be more likely to translate and do outreach, and also more likely to be able to “get it” when information is translated to them. This is why we do field trips to students as young as in kindergarteners, think about art installations that focus on neuroscience awareness, hold official summer internships to (largely underrepresented) high-schoolers and college students.