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Neuroscience, Science Communication Graduate Student Demystifies the Brain in Ghana

Brianna Gonzalez smiles in front of a huge termite mound in Ghana

Brianna Gonzalez smiles in front of a huge termite mound in GhanaIntegrative neuroscience PhD candidate Brianna Gonzalez spent three weeks in Ghana demystifying the brain for school children and members of the public, and bringing together scientists and traditional healers.

Gonzalez’s work is part of a larger project funded by a Dana Foundation Planning Grant for a Dana Center for Neuroscience and Society for Global Brain Health and led by Turhan Canli, a professor of integrative neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology and Gonzalez’s doctoral advisor. 

The funds gave Gonzalez the chance to work with researchers at the University of Ghana in Accra, contribute to her field and see a different part of the world. It also became her capstone project for her advanced graduate certificate in science communication, a program available only to Stony Brook graduate students.

“Having the opportunity to combine my interests in neuroscience and science communication as well as pave the way for future students to have similar experiences was so exciting,” said Gonzalez. “We’ve now established connections in Ghana where Stony Brook students can hone their neuroscience-teaching and science communication skills, and be a part of a two-way culturally sensitive interaction between the general population and neuroscientists where each group can teach and inform the other.”

Brianna Gonzalez stands with a group of traditional healers in GhanaIn Ghana, neuroscience is taught as part of other programs like pharmacy, biology and physiology. When locals seek treatment for neurological disorders like epilepsy and schizophrenia, they often turn to traditional healers who use herbs and plants as medicine. Their methods often work, though they haven’t undergone formal clinical trials and are not FDA approved.

One of Gonzalez’s projects was to build on previous work to bring together some of these traditional healers and academic researchers at the University of Ghana. The project’s goal is to enhance trust and perhaps expand collaborations between the two groups, whose exchanges have occasionally been fraught because of lack of mutual understanding. Gonzalez helped lead a conversation with the healers to understand the lack of trust on their side and what might help heal the relationships.

“My goal was to assess the level of trust between the healers and the scientists, and the communication between the two,” Gonzalez said. “It was important for me to try to figure out those stories behind what happened in the past to burn the bridges, but then also ask them what can be done to help mend this trust and improve it for the future. We hope to be able to support more of these engagements between academic scientists and traditional healers.”

Beyond bringing together experts, Gonzalez worked to share some of her knowledge and, more importantly, to get others interested in the brain and neuroscience.

Brianna Gonzalez wears traditional Ghanian dress with her host family“I really enjoyed putting my research and science communication training to the test — halfway across the world,” she said. “In addition to my work there, I had time to explore the country, try the local dishes and meet an incredible group of people who made my experience the best it could have been.”

She led a few experiential games with schoolchildren during the Ghana Brain Bee — a competition much like a spelling bee where local winners advance to further rounds of competition. Gonzalez led a “truth or myth” game about the brain and an experiment to help students find their blind spots. Both activities were deliberately simple and immersive so the students could share their knowledge, and the experiment, with others.

She also was a guest on a 30-minute science show on a local radio station, where she answered questions live and discussed the field of neuroscience in terms the radio’s general audience could understand and engage with.

“To me, science communication is bringing science to any and every audience, while delivering the message in a way that is understandable, relatable and accessible to all,” Gonzalez said. “As a scientist and lifelong learner, I have found myself listening to hour-long talks full of jargon that I can’t follow. I leave feeling discouraged and wishing more academics were trained in science communication. Science benefits everyone, and everyone should have a right to the knowledge scientists have built and continue to build upon.”

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