Dr Sabina Brennan, whose work has won a major award for science communication, is planting awareness of brain health into our brains. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.
What have you done for your brain today? Dr Sabina Brennan wants us to look after our brains as routinely as we brush our teeth each day, and her mission to bring brain health to a wide audience has won her Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)’s Outstanding Contribution to Science Communication Award.
One of Brennan’s initial routes to raise awareness of brain health was Hello Brain, a major European FP7-funded project that she coordinated. She had just finished her PhD in cognitive neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin when she saw a call for projects to increase the visibility of EU-funded health research, and it sparked an idea.
“Europe is committed to adding two extra healthy years to the population and brain health is a huge factor in that,” recalled Brennan. “So I thought, why not present brain research in a way that people can use in their everyday lives?”
The result was the Hello Brain website and app, which explain what we know about how the brain works, highlight research and encourage everyone to work ‘brain buffs’ into their lives, such as taking physical exercise, meeting up with a friend or trying a new activity.
“It’s a way to give people something they overtly need – in this case, tips and strategies to protect their brain health – and at the same time, covertly feeding in information about research,” explained Brennan. “That makes the research relevant, and it empowers people to understand their health better.”
‘I think academics can sometimes worry that their peers will criticise their efforts, but science communication to the general public has to be an integral part of your research, not an add-on’
– DR SABINA BRENNAN
Entertain and empower
Before Brennan started her academic career with a degree in psychology from Maynooth University, she was an actor – one of her major roles was Tess Halpin in Fair City – so it’s hardly surprising that films feature strongly in her science communication methods.
She has developed a suite of short and entertaining ‘FreeDem’ animated films that challenge stigma and fears around dementia.
The entertainment factor is important for Brennan, who believes that if you engage and empower an audience, the education element will fall into place.
“We did surveys with 8,000 people and we found they acquired knowledge from these two-minute films, and by challenging misconceptions, we could reduce their fears around memory loss,” she said. “We also saw that people’s intentions to change their behaviours were significantly linked to how much they enjoyed the films.”
Widen the channels
Brennan believes that scientists should think about ways to communicate their research through a diversity of channels far beyond academic papers and conferences.
“I think academics can sometimes worry that their peers will criticise their efforts, but science communication to the general public has to be an integral part of your research, not an add-on,” she said.
“The key I find is to figure out the core message from your research, keep that central and use language that your audience uses. Yes, it’s hard to drop the graphs and the jargon that we as academics are used to, but I think it is our duty as researchers to communicate our findings to a wide audience in an engaging way.”
Brennan is on the case: she is piloting a six-week brain health programme for primary school children that includes challenges and rewards; she is looking to develop programmes for workplaces; she has developed a resource about brain health for people with multiple sclerosis; and she will be talking about dementia risk reduction and brain health on this year’s Operation Transformation on RTÉ.
‘I see a lot of initiatives to encourage girls and young women into STEM, which are great, but we also need to empower older women who maybe didn’t get the chance to study science at school or go to university’
– DR SABINA BRENNAN
Women in STEM
Working with older adults has opened Brennan’s eyes to their appetite to understand and engage with science and technology, and she believes this should be harnessed.
“I see a lot of initiatives to encourage girls and young women into STEM, which are great, but we also need to empower older women who maybe didn’t get the chance to study science at school or go to university, or they had to give up their jobs when they got married [the ‘marriage bar’ on certain types of employment was in place in Ireland until the early 1970s],” she said. “I lecture on MOOCs and extramural courses for Trinity and I see lots of older women signing up. I would love to see more courses opened up to older adults in an affordable way.”
Brennan also wants to see more women in science speaking about their work in the media, and she urges women to “put themselves forward and accept stuff they might consider a little out of their zone”, citing a recent experience she had with the Science Weekly podcast for The Guardian.
“They were doing a piece on Shakespeare, and for Macbeth, they asked me to talk about the science of hallucinations,” she said. “That is not something I research, but I thought, well, I used to be an actor and I am a psychologist and a neuroscientist so I will look into it, and it went fine. I think we just sometimes need to believe in ourselves a little bit more and step forward.”
Disclosure: Claire O’Connell worked with Sabina Brennan on the Hello Brain site and the Brain Health 4 MS site