St. Thomas Newsroom

Connecting Through Brainwaves

A sheep's brain used by Robin Willenbring as part of her work with Brainwaves.

When Robin Willenbring graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2012, one of the things she was saddest to leave behind was Junior Achievement. She volunteered through the organization and went to local schools to teach good business practices to elementary school students.

Luckily, upon arriving at her Ph.D. program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, she quickly found an outlet: Brainwaves. Brainwaves is a relatively new, student-run program at Mayo, which focuses on science education outreach to local schools and community organizations.

“Exposing kids at a really young age about what science is, and that the concept of science is so different than what’s taught in school, can really help kids learn,” Willenbring said. “It helps them to know that no matter what their background, race, creed, socioeconomic status, whatever the mold of what they think they should do can be broken if that’s what they desire.”

Willenbring graduated from St. Thomas with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Through the McNair Scholar’s Program, she realized that she wanted to go to graduate school. She landed on Mayo, saying it had a “homey” feel that reminded her of St. Thomas and that it provides an incredibly supportive environment.

Now at Mayo in her third year, she is in biomedical sciences in the Virology and Gene Therapy Program. Her thesis project looks at how viruses induce blood-brain barrier disruption – which is if a virus infects your brain, how the blood vessels begin to break apart, which can eventually lead to death.

The research was what she expected out of graduate school. What’s surprised her more was learning how to juggle other aspects, including how to properly mentor people. That’s where Brainwaves comes in. Willenbring joined her first year of graduate school, and has served as co-director in her second and third years.

Robin Willenbring ’12

The little brain

Brainwaves works with elementary- through high-school-aged students in the Rochester area with a particular focus on disadvantaged youth. They hold about an event a month. Most of the work is done in collaboration with schools, but they also join up with community organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club. Volunteers go to the school and give a science-based lesson, usually centering on something connected to neuroscience.

For elementary and middle school students, an hour with a Brainwaves volunteer might entail learning basic brain anatomy, studying what different parts of the brain can do, looking at animal brains, such as a sheep’s, and playing tag to replicate how neurons work.

“We go to local schools and excite kids about science, about something more than recess and lunchtime,” Willenbring said. “We use neuroscience and the brain to jump-start that. The brain tends to be something that is tangible, but still abstract and exciting.”

The volunteers are all connected to Mayo. The majority are graduate or medical students, but can come from a range of programs, including the neurology residence and physical therapy programs.

“We bring in a wide variety of people that these kids can connect with,” Willenbring said. “So they can think, ‘I look like that person, maybe I can be like that person one day.’”

At first, Brainwaves would reach out school principals, asking if they could come into the classroom. But now in its third year, Willenbring said they have schools that have started to reach out to them, who have begun to expect Brainwaves every year.

“Schools are welcoming, inviting us,” Willenbring said.

Willenbring said she has a “particular soft spot” for teaching the first- and second-graders.

“It re-energizes me about life,” Willenbring said. “You teach them about the cerebellum – we call it the little brain – and that it handles balance and agility, and then you have a quiz at the end. You ask them, ‘What part of the brain helps balance?’ To hear really little first-graders yell, ‘Cerebellum!’ is the sweetest thing.”

She added that you should never underestimate the questions they might ask.

“Once I was asked, ‘What do dragon brains look like?’’” Willenbring said. “And I had to answer, “‘I’ve never seen a dragon brain.’”

But she said most of the questions are smart and “flooring.”

“Part of what’s really great is to acknowledge that that’s a really smart question,” Willenbring said. “When you tell them, “‘I’m glad you thought of and asked that,’ you just see the appreciation – that light bulb go on. That’s the reason why I keep doing it.”

Big events for big kids

For high school students, Brainwaves, through trial and error, has found that it needs a different format than simply going into the classroom, Willenbring said. Instead, the group holds big events and invites high school students.

This year, in March, Brainwaves held Brain Awareness Week and invited 100 high school students to Mayo. Brainwaves reached out to teachers to select the students.

“You can pick students you feel could get the most of the events – that’s who you bring,” Willenbring said. “Bring students who fit that profile … We didn’t only get students who were gung-ho about science.”

The high school students were treated to a keynote speech by Dr. Kendall Lee, were able to see the human anatomy lab, which included human brain and spinal cord specimens, visited two of six Mayo labs opened for the event, and had a career panel session, which allowed students to learn about day-to-day tasks and education of various Mayo consultants.

“Surprisingly, at 8:30 in the morning, I didn’t see a single high school student fall asleep,” Willenbring said. “I think that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.”

As co-director, Willenbring was part of the committee that planned Brain Awareness Week. The committee had to start from scratch, but Willenbring said the payoff was huge. Brainwaves plans for Brain Awareness Week to become a biennial event. Willenbring said she felt the event was successful and that, in the future, it will be the same format, but with a few tweaks, such as maybe giving students a worksheet so they have something to take home or allowing students to pick in advance what labs they are able to see, so the event will run more smoothly.

In 2015, Brainwaves will hold a mocktail event for high school students. The event will provide students with various mocktail drinks while examining what alcohol does to the brain from a scientific point of view and why the drinking age is 21. Drunk goggles – which are supposed to simulate alcohol effects – will be featured.

“We’ll look at why it’s bad to binge drink, why people slur their words or stumble, why they can potentially black out, the difference between shots and beer and how they affect the brain differently,” Willenbring said. “We’re getting them to start thinking about the message of don’t drink at the age, and if you do drink, drink responsibility. We’re spreading awareness. It’s not a typical lecture.”

The event, which is being adapted from a similar one done by a Mayo colleague in Madison, Wisconsin, will be hosted in the spring before prom. Parents and teachers also are invited.

Continuing on her path

Willenbring said she hopes Brainwaves will continue to expand.

“Expanding the program is really important, especially to communities who might not have a program like this,” Willenbring said, recalling her own experience of attending school in Princeton, Minnesota. “When I was there, there was no program where professionals in the science field came in. My health class had a doctor come in, and that was my only exposure to science. … I never had a science group, I didn’t think science was cool. I didn’t think science was a thing you should do until high school. A middle school wood shop teacher recommended a science novel to me, and I thought, ‘Wow, science can actually be cool.’ That intrigued me, got me to ask questions. Prior to that, I had no reason to motivate me to think about science.”

In her own future, Willenbring hopes to end up being a principal investigator in her own research lab, whether in an industry or academic setting.

“I keep coming back to how I really enjoy mentoring and teaching and writing,” Willenbring said. “I really enjoy thinking about science and how to do science.”

Wherever she ends up and whatever she ends up doing, she says she intends to keep doing community involvement, like Brainwaves.

“It kind of encompasses my whole pathway that I have been interested in since high school,” Willenbring said.