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Neuroscience for All

Apr 2011 | Michelle 2,477 Comments

This article is the first in a multi-part series featuring people engaged in science communication activities at the University of Washington. Stay tuned for upcoming articles!

Imagine you are attending to a conference in a foreign country. You are the keynote speaker, invited from across the globe to present your research. Would you stop by the local grade school to talk to kids about science?

For Dr. Eric Chudler, it’s the normal thing to do.

Many of us in science like to do outreach on the side, when we’re able to find the time. Dr. Chudler has built a career out of devoting time equally to both: he is a research associate professor in the UW departments of Bioengineering and Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, as well as Director of Education and Outreach at UW Engineered Biomaterials.

Photo courtesy of Eric Chudler

So when he was invited to deliver the keynote address at a conference in Japan in 2008, Dr. Chudler made sure to fit two school visits into his meeting schedule. His presentation to a class of fourth graders on the wonders of the brain—complete with optical illusions of American and Japanese flags—was an enormous hit with the students. It was even featured in the local newspaper.

Originally set on becoming a marine biologist, Dr. Chudler took a psychology course in college and became hooked on neuroscience. Ever since, he has studied how our brains process sensory information. His research group at UW focuses on how we interpret stimuli as pain, and in particular, he wants to understand why many patients with Parkinson’s disease suffer from chronic pain.

Beyond these specific research interests, it’s clear that Dr. Chudler has boundless enthusiasm for communicating the field of neuroscience, especially to young people. Surrounded by the colorful photos and drawings—many from students—that pepper his office walls, he digs through overstuffed binders and a large Tupperware box, showing off props and materials he’s amassed over the years for K-12 classroom presentations.

It began with his daughter’s preschool class career day, he says. Dr. Chudler shared with the kids what it’s like to be a neuroscientist, and something just clicked. In years following (until his daughter was in middle school, when it was no longer cool to bring Dad to class), he gave similar classroom presentations. By that time, teachers were asking him back, and school visits had become a regular part of his schedule.

Dr. Chudler’s presentations are highly interactive, full of colorful optical illusions, games and demonstrations. He says he usually starts off by juggling mini foam brains, asking students how his own brain is helping him juggle. With over a hundred of these presentations under his belt, Dr. Chudler knows better than most how in-person demos can spark young people’s interest in science.

“Regardless of the age group and what they can grasp, I try to convey the fun and excitement of science,” he says. “The point is to get students interested, wanting to learn more about how the brain works.”

With this goal in mind, Dr. Chudler turned to the internet as a channel for neuroscience outreach. He built the website Neuroscience for Kids, now a massive online educational resource and winner of the prestigious AAAS Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE). The website contains a wealth of regularly updated educational materials—including experiments, news, lesson plans, and contests—for students and teachers. The content is heavily used, especially during the school year: over 10 million files are downloaded from the website every month.

Photo courtesy of Eric Chudler

Dr. Chudler is a prolific communicator through other outlets as well. He serves as president of the Pacific Cascade Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, and since 1998, he has coordinated the UW Brain Awareness Week, which promotes brain research and culminates in an open house with interactive exhibits for hundreds of grade school students. In 2006, Dr. Chudler made a 30 minute TV show featuring brain-related games and activities, which was nominated for a Northwest Emmy. He’s published papers and given numerous presentations on science education, has written and edited a number of brain science books for young adults, and has even self-published a book of haiku poetry, Elephant on Brain.

As a research associate professor, Dr. Chudler is supported entirely by grants, so he spends much of his time working to secure funding for new outreach projects. Keeping current outreach projects funded is also a challenge. Neuroscience for Kids was supported by a Science Education Partnership award through the National Center of Research Resources of the NIH, but that funding has ended. Currently, Dr. Chudler maintains the site on his own and through donations from people who find the materials valuable.

Uniquely able to compare the funding climates of basic research and science education, he says competition for education grants is tough. For many grant competitions, the university has an internal review process, so Dr. Chudler’s proposal must beat out other UW applications to even be considered by the funding agency. On top of that, there just isn’t much money out there: “We really need more funding for education.”

Clearly, Dr. Chudler’s love of neuroscience fuels his tireless commitment to outreach. In talking to him, though, a deeper motivation becomes apparent, one we all should keep in mind: as scientists, it’s our responsibility to communicate our fields to the public.

The goal is greater science literacy, both to promote research and to keep up with ethical challenges. “A more literate public would be more willing to support funding for science,” Dr. Chudler says, “and there are also big ethical questions related to neuroscience right now.” He cites potential commercial availability of lie detectors, use of PET scans in court cases, and the development of nonlethal weapons designed to trigger certain sensory responses.

“People might need to vote on these issues, or serve on a jury. There are questions of ‘Could it be done?’ versus ‘Should it be done?’ The public needs to weigh in on these things.”

Hence Dr. Chudler’s work in educating young people about science. “Even if [students] don’t go into science, they could help dispel some myths. They’ll gain an appreciation of the field, and they’ll become a little more ‘science-literate.’”

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