By Alisha Epps
Originally published Spring 2013.
As grad students, we frequently combine science and sandwiches at lunchtime departmental seminars and meetings. But how often are we also able to use these same things to bring a smile to the face of a stranger?
On August 3rd, a group of Emory and Georgia Tech scientists and volunteers did just that when they hosted a luncheon for members of Side by Side Brain Injury Clubhouse, a day program for individuals who have experienced a brain injury. Side by Side provides a supportive environment for adults with acquired brain injuries to learn coping strategies and life skills while working and socializing with others. Members of the Clubhouse have a wide range of skills and abilities, and are encouraged to use and develop these abilities through a variety of volunteer tasks at the clubhouse, such as meal preparation, office tasks, and general maintenance. Side by Side members also participate in frequent game nights, social outings, and educational events to foster community between members of the Clubhouse, their families, and the greater Atlanta community.
And of course, if you want to learn about current brain research and socialize with neuroscientists in Atlanta, where better to go than Emory? With the support of the GDBBS, Neuroscience program, and BGSA, GIVE (Graduate Students Involved in Volunteerism at Emory) extended an invitation to Side by Side for a lunch event that would include presentations from researchers studying brain injury and tours of their labs. GDBBS students Monica Chau, Todd Deveau, Alisha Epps, and Shannon Mills, Georgia Tech students Chloe and Dielle Meyer, Neuroscience professors Michelle LaPlaca and Shan Ping Yu, Emergency Medicine professor Iqbal Sayeed, and GDBBS staff Margie Varnado and Gary Longstreet graciously donated their time, enthusiasm, and expertise. Ten Side by Side members and three staff attended the event, and their questions and stories challenged and inspired us all to remember the faces behind our research.
Dr. Iqbal Sayeed of the Donald Stein lab opened the luncheon with a presentation about the beneficial effects of progesterone in traumatic brain injury. Neuroscience students Monica Chau and Todd Deveau explained iPS stem cell lines and their use in experimental stroke models in the Yu and Wei labs. Joint Emory-Georgia Tech professor Michelle LaPlaca then explained her lab’s research on the biomechanics of TBI. Side by Side members were eager to ask questions throughout, and their interest and enthusiasm for brain injury research was infectious, as explained by GDBBS student Shannon Mills: “This was a unique opportunity, in that the topics that were shared were directly relating to issues affecting the audience and were able to give them hope for how issues they have gone through could be handled better in the future.” In the words of a Side by Side guest, Tony, as summarized by volunteer coordinator Virginia Vaughan, “We met some wonderful people who we hope can visit our Clubhouse and learn more about what we do here.” Tony was impressed that, at Emory, they are really looking into what they can do about brain injuries. “It gives us hope.” Not only did Side by Side members benefit from the presentations, but the researchers themselves also benefitted from the inspiration they received from those affected by the very problems they are researching. This event strengthened a critical link between the microscope slides, animal models, and cellular mechanisms studied in lab, and the human faces that provide the driving force for and are most strongly impacted by these experiments, as emphasized by Neuroscience student Monica Chau: “I really enjoyed sharing my stroke and stem cell research with the Side by Side group, because I felt that it had personal significance to them.”
Following these presentations, Side by Side members and Emory/Tech volunteers divided into three groups for lab demonstrations and tours. Each group went to their lab of choice, and was able to tour either the Stein lab or Yu/Wei lab or participate in a demonstration of an interactive computer program created by the LaPlaca lab. The lab tours enabled the Side by Side members to truly visualize and experience what neuroscience research is all about and allowed the researchers to view the process of scientific discovery from a fresh perspective, adding a new element of encouragement and motivation to their work. Seeing people recovering from brain injury viewing brain sections from rodent models of brain injury brought the reasons and results for scientific inquiry full circle, reinforcing the importance and need for future research and improved therapeutics. Oftentimes in science, we become so focused on a particular gene or receptor of interest, or spend so much time in lab with our rats, mice, or cells, that we become at risk of losing focus on the ultimate end goal of better understanding and improving human brain function, and this event helped participants refocus on this goal. In the words of Neuroscience student Todd Deveau: “As a graduate student invested in translational research, it is easy to get stuck at the bench and lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing. Having the opportunity to present our research to and interact with people who experienced brain injury was an extremely refreshing and rewarding experience. Overall it was a great experience and I hope to participate again in the future.”
GIVE hopes to maintain a relationship with Side by Side through attendance at the Clubhouse’s game nights on the second Friday of every month, a hope that was seconded by Side by Side guests. Additionally, volunteers hope to host additional events connecting GDBBS researchers with those coping with the diseases and disorders studied by Emory students. Anyone interested in volunteering at these or other events is encouraged to contact Margie Varnado (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Side by Side (http://www.sidebysideclubhouse.org/). As volunteer Shannon Mills summarized: “I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to pour out our knowledge to help others in the community be more aware of what’s going on in the world of science around them. I was glad to participate and share my time with so many great people and smiling faces.” And really, what student could pass up sandwiches, smiles, and science?