Neurolingo talks to demystify complex science

Four graduate students persisted through COVID to create a live virtual event designed to connect the public with neuroscience research
From left to right: Hilary Sweatman, Hyo Min Lee, Alice Morgunova and Hannah Jin taken at the café on Jan. 31, 2020, when the four students decided to launch Neurolingo

Hyo Min Lee recalls the date and place precisely.

“It was January 31, 2020. The four of us were at a café, I pitched the idea and they agreed to join me. I was so happy that we took a photo of the four of us. For me, it has a very emotional value.”

One year later, “the idea” has become reality. Lee and his three colleagues from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (the Neuro)– fellow PhD candidates Alice Morgunova and Hilary Sweatman, and MSc student Hannah Jin – have now launched Neurolingo Winter 2021, a Public Neuroscience Conference they conceived, created and organized.

The live virtual event on Feb. 20 will feature eight 10-minute TED-like talks by McGill grads, five PhD students and 3 MSc students. Each will be followed by a question-and-answer period, and will include a French-language interpreter.

The Neurolingo organizers have one simple goal: to demystify complex neuroscience subjects. More than 700 people have registered for the event so far.

Lee, a Van Gelder-Savoy Scholar and Neurolingo’s conceptor, said that “we have to do more to communicate science. Although the general public appreciates science, they don’t really understand what we do. A lot of us felt the disconnect between what people know about us and what we actually work on.”

“It’s really apparent when you talk to a random person who asks you what you do. You say ‘I’m doing a PhD in neuroscience’ and their immediate response is; ‘Are you going to be a brain surgeon? Or a neurologist?’ A lot of people don’t know the difference between an MD and a PhD, the difference between the kind of research we do at McGill and a clinical practice they are familiar with.”

“So we have to be better at communicating and raising awareness about our research.”

Scientists in training

At the outset, the students reached out to two McGill administrators, Jacky Farrell, the Science Outreach Program advisor in the Faculty of Science, and Dr. Josephine Nalbantoglu, the Dean of Graduate and Postgraduate Studies, who gave them guidance on launching the program.

Then, in search of advice on how to communicate difficult concepts to a lay audience, the students knew whom to approach; Prof. David Ragsdale, an associate professor in Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery who has given scores of talks on neuroscience, including a TED talk, and Prof. Edward Ruthazer, also an associate professor at the Neuro, who holds the Tier II Canada Research Chair in Neural Circuit Development.

“They both have a lot of experience in science communication, they’re very passionate about it and they’re very popular within the program for being such great instructors,” said Lee. “We’re very happy that they joined us as faculty advisors.”

The students were also strongly encouraged to seek an expert in communication from outside academia to train the Neurolingo speakers.

“You need to have the perspective and experience that people outside the academic world bring,” said Lee.

The student group hired speaker trainer Nicholas Belliveau, head of marketing at Fintech Cadence, a Montreal non-profit, and a public speaker himself. He put the students through a series of training workshops, giving his input at every step, which the students found “very valuable” with specific tips on structure and body language. The faculty advisors focused on the science aspect.

“Their idea,” said Ragsdale, “was that they wanted students in our graduate program to have the opportunity to explain what they do to a general audience. It’s good for them to practice giving talks to non-experts. They do give talks, but to colleagues, and they’re very technical.”

“It’s a totally different kind of skill to learn to take very technical stuff and make it something that people who are just interested can understand. They’re scientists in training and that’s a very valuable skill.”

Ragsdale was particularly impressed that the students not only worked diligently to organize the event, but also persevered when COVID-19 hit.

“They worked really hard to create a high-quality event, and they kept working at it despite COVID. They didn’t give up.”

The original concept was a live, in-person event at the Montreal Science Centre at the Old Port, but the pandemic forced the move to a virtual event.

The talks have been pre-recorded but an emcee will introduce each presenter prior to airing the video and will moderate live Q&A sessions, for which the speakers will be on hand.

Critical research

When neurology students speak to scientists, things get very critical fast, Lee noted, and the presentation tends to take on a defensive tone, anticipating criticism. That’s a good and necessary scientific process of peer review of research and concepts.

“But the emphasis is on totally different things with a public audience, because they don’t really care about that,” added Lee. “So we’re modelling Neurolingo on TED-style talks so that it can be entertaining and engaging as well as informative.”

The public needs to trust science to inform public policy decisions, he noted. People will wear masks, respect social distancing and wash their hands more if they have a basic understanding of the issues, for instance.

“The work of scientists is also supported by society, tax money,” added Ragsdale, “so it’s important that students be able to explain and justify that what they do is valuable. And people are interested in the brain.”

“What these graduate students do a daily basis involves equipment and methods that are completely foreign to most people. But they’re addressing problems [that many people can identify with] like Alzheimer’s disease or mental illness.

“What they actually do daily is incredibly obscure and difficult for people to understand, so bridging that gap is important.”

Lee and his three partners are targeting science enthusiasts initially, and then hope to broaden their scope with the help of social media and some news outlets, as well as through the McGill libraries.

“We obviously want to grow the Neurolingo program and establish it,” said Lee. “We have this opportunity to show the public all this great research at McGill. But what we really want to do is [train] the next generation of neuroscientists.”

You can register here to watch and/or participate in the event on Saturday. February 20, from 2 pm to 4 pm.

Neurolingo is sponsored by the Tannenbaum Open Science Initiative at the Neuro, the Integrated Program in Neuroscience, the Douglas Research Center and the Graduate Student Association for Neuroscience.