National Brain Awareness Week (BAW), founded and coordinated by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, is a global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. During BAW, participants organize innovative activities to educate and engage people of all ages about the brain. During the week of April 20, Russell Cohen '12 brought Brain Awareness Week to Sarah Lawrence with two talks that informed and inspired the campus community. Cohen cites his motivation for bringing BAW to SLC as a desire to promote learning. Cohen explained, "My initial interest came from my background in education reform and Neuroeducation. I saw Brain Awareness Week as the perfect opportunity to share my love of learning and neuroscience with the Sarah Lawrence community."
Cohen first learned about National Brain Awareness Week on the Society of Neuroscience Website. He then discovered The Dana Foundation's Alliance for Brain Initiatives: "A nonprofit organization committed to advancing public awareness about the progress and promise of brain research and to disseminating information on the brain in an understandable and accessible fashion." Cohen contacted the Dana Foundation and expressed his interest in bringing the global event to Sarah Lawrence for the first time. Cohen remarked, "The Dana Foundation made it ridiculously simple. They provided me with contacts and hundreds of flyers." Cohen describes the process of finding speakers for the event: "I literally just started e-mailing people that I thought would be interesting and I received an overwhelming response. Seven out of the nine people I contacted expressed interest in speaking. I think that this speaks to the true power of Brain Awareness Week. It is an educational platform that people are willing to donate so much time and effort to." Neuroscience professor Dr. Leah Olson praised Cohen's hard work: "Russell almost single-handedly organized this amazing event. From the day he first became aware of National Brain Awareness Week to the time when the first of our two great speakers arrived to celebrate Brain Awareness Week at SLC—a little over two months—Russell organized everything."
Interestingly, the first person that Russell reached out to turned out to be the man who started it all—Dr. Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University. Cohen joked, "I didn't know how huge this guy was. He was the first person to e-mail me back and said he would be thrilled to speak. I later found out that he created National Brain Awareness Week in partnership with the Dana Foundation." Dr. McEwen is world-renowned neuroscientist and a past president of the Society for Neuroscience, a society comprising of over 40,000 neuroscientists. He has received numerous awards for his ground-breaking work on the effects of stress on the brain.
Dr. McEwen was Sarah Lawrence Brain Awareness Week's first speaker. His talk, "Our Stressed-Out Brains: From Molecules to Societies," focused on educating students about the neurological consequences of stress. The talk was both comprehensive and accessible to students. Stress is an inescapable reality of student life and students left Dr. McEwen's talk with newly-acquired knowledge on how to cope with stress in a healthy and sustainable manner. The second speaker, Dr. Erin O'Connor of NYU, is published in educational and psychology journals, including the Journal of Educational Psychology and Journal of Applied Psychology. She currently leads a research program examining relationships with mothers and teachers and the impact of these relationships on child development in early and middle childhood. She spoke on the role of care-giving relationships in the growth of children's cognitive and socio-emotional development. Students found Dr. O'Connor very engaging due to the seminar style approach typical of Sarah Lawrence classes.
In the spirit of Sarah Lawrence, Cohen is particularly interested in highlighting the inherent interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience. "My goal was to find speakers who relate neuroscience to topics that students find interesting and engaging." Judging by the positive responses from students and the overall excitement that BAW generated for the Sarah Lawrence community, Cohen clearly succeeded. Lauren Shepard '13 commented, "I had no idea Brain Awareness Week existed. I'm really glad Russell helped me and the rest of the campus become aware. What I loved about Dr. McEwen's talk is how relevant it was—students deal with stress pretty often, so it was really interesting to learn more about the biological basis of stress and its consequences on our lives. It was especially cool to learn about it from someone who is a leading researcher in the field." Shepard's sentiments were echoed across campus. Hannah Greene '12 remarked, "Brain Awareness Week was a fantastic idea. Dr. Erin O'Connor's lecture was very accessible. She seemed like a wonderful human being whose heart was truly in her work. I would love to see BAW return to Sarah Lawrence next year, including more speakers!"
Cohen is thankful for the integral role that Sarah Lawrence played in making Brain Awareness Week a reality, "Everyone I spoke to from Leah to College Events was incredibly supportive." Dr. Olson remarked, "We both deeply appreciate all the help provided by the administrative staff that Russell contacted, who bent over backwards to give him the help and support he needed—showcasing the opportunities available for engaged and passionate students to fully participate in helping to create and sustain our unique intellectual environment."
Cohen also credits his newfound passion for neuroscience to Sarah Lawrence's educational philosophy. "Sarah Lawrence gave me the confidence to go out there and pursue my interests. My interest in neuroscience is completely new. I put myself out there, started emailing people in the field and now it has become a huge passion." Indeed, Cohen's passion for neuroscience extends beyond BAW. He is currently working on an independent project titled "Music of The Brain." The project entails converting brain scans into sounds. Cohen has also started a club for students interested in learning about the brain. Cohen notes, "The club is not exclusively for the purpose of organizing Brain Awareness Week. It is a forum for any student who wants to learn more about the brain." Cohen envisions weekly readings and discussions on topics that interest students. Cohen is equally passionate about expanding his passion for the brain outside of the SLC community. Cohen notes, "There are so many schools nearby that we can engage with. It would be great to organize a day to raise awareness about the brain at a local elementary or high school."
Cohen has high hopes for BAW next year. He envisions a week filled with interactive student activities in addition to lectures. Cohen anticipates a "Brain Fair," where students can "walk from booth to booth and learn about topics like dance and the brain and how illusions work." He is also interested in planning an art competition that challenges students to create art based on the brain. Cohen also looks forward to planning a film series. Cohen noted, "I would love to screen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and hold a discussion on the neuroscience behind the film." Both Cohen and Dr. Olson hope that others will join him next year and in years after to make this Brain Awareness Week a Sarah Lawrence tradition.
Students interested in joining the Brain Club, helping out with Brain Awareness Week, or who have any ideas they want to share may contact Russell Cohen.