The BrainBorders neuroscience outreach program held its inaugural event at Calexico High School in June 2023 thanks to the generosity of the ASCB COMPASS Outreach Grant. BrainBorders aims to bring neuroscience experts from the University of California, San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies directly to the rural, agricultural community of Calexico, California located on the US-Mexico border about 2 hours from San Diego, California. The mission of BrainBorders is to teach local high school students in the Imperial Valley about fundamental principles in neuroscience and inspire students to explore a career in research as they develop their educational and professional goals. The founding members of BrainBorders (Dr. Christian Cazares, Dr. Maribel Patiño, Alexandra Garcia, Nicole Granados) are all from historically marginalized and excluded backgrounds in neuroscience and were all motivated by the desire to give other students from similar backgrounds advice on how to best navigate the transition to college. Members of BrainBorders include alumni of the community’s school district who took it upon themselves to enact this goal and give back to the same community that supported their own paths to a neuroscience career. The outreach event took place at Calexico High School with the support of Assistant Principal Martin Leyva and AP Psychology Teacher Andrew Alvarez.
Our day-long event included presentations and hands-on activities including “Comparative Neuroanatomy”, an interactive demonstration of neuroanatomical landmarks with the brains of several different species, including humans. This was followed by an interactive demonstration of histological procedures to explain to students how brain tissue is preserved for closer examination in microscopes. Students also participated in a live “Neurological Examination” demonstration in which we simulated an interaction between a neurologist and a patient to identify any potential conditions that could be screened on an initial visit. Our event was capped with an “Ask a Neuroscientist” Panel, which served as an opportunity to ask us as neuroscientists questions related to education, science research, and what a day is like in the life of a budding neuroscientist. Our event encouraged students to document the experience to reach the broader community with social media. As Calexico is a town with a majority Spanish-speaking population, our team was comprised of bilingual researchers who ensured no bits of knowledge were lost due to potential language barriers.
The founders of BrainBorders firmly believe in the positive impact that events like these can have on the local community. First and foremost, outreach events like these can expose local students to new concepts in neuroscience, which may not be readily available in the local school or libraries. This can provide a sense of connection to the larger scientific community, leading to further learning and exploration and perhaps the beginning of a career in the field. Second, our event brings together researchers and the people we are meant to serve, which will help to break down barriers and stigma surrounding science research by making it more accessible and relatable to those without access to higher education. Finally, events like these serve to inform members of the community about the latest research and developments in neuroscience, which can have practical applications for improving their own health and well-being.
The hope of our event organizers is that students take home the knowledge that our brains are incredibly complex and powerful organs that play a central role in all aspects of our lives. Importantly, we want students to believe that they have the power to directly increase our understanding of how the brain works so that we can better understand and address a wide range of issues, including mental health, learning and development, and physical health. If students can witness how anyone can get involved and contribute to scientific exploration and discovery, regardless of their background or education, then we believe that events like these will have long-term impact in showing students that they too will soon be in a position to give back to their communities.
The event leads (Dr. Christian Cazares and Dr. Maribel Patiño) have experience in neuroscience outreach as co-founders of a UC San Diego summer research program for underrepresented undergraduates interested in neuroscience (Colors of the Brain) – Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind Scholars Program. Their goals with the CoB-KIBM Scholars Program are to motivate, mentor, and facilitate the transition of undergraduate students at UC San Diego that come from disadvantaged economic and social backgrounds, as well as students with disabilities, into Ph.D. programs with significant relevance to neuroscience. With the help of Alexandra Garcia, a 2022 alum of the CoB-KIBM Scholars Program, BrainBorders was created to expand these efforts to a high school population. There are many resources available for those who are interested in learning more about neuroscience and other scientific subjects, and as the years go by, we at BrainBorders will make ourselves available as a professional development resource in the future careers of students who may otherwise not have the moral or professional support as members of underserved communities.
About the Author:
Dr. Christian Cazares is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Tye Lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and co-founder of Colors of the Brain, a summer undergraduate research program at UC San Diego.
Julio Fierro Morales is an ASCB COMPASS member and graduate student in the Roh-Johnson lab at the University of Utah.