Guest Post: Memories of bikes, brains, and skateboard filled beers

By Megan Slaker, graduate Noggin volunteer from Neuroscience, WSU Vancouver

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Greetings fellow scientists, explorers, communicators, and investigators!

Walking into Velo Cult Bike Shop, I was slightly distracted by the number of bicycles, helmets, wheels, and strange tools. I sat down on a long bench next to a table and watched as a friend walked over with a flight of beers on a skateboard. I should have had one to calm my nerves. Instead, I stood up and wandered towards the middle of the shop, near the stage and watched as the room slowly filled with people (some estimates put it at 500!, others say about 100 🙂 willing to hear me talk. Yep, should have had one.

Sharing my research with a diverse and relaxed audience has been one of the most clarifying and memorable experiences in my graduate school career. Prior to my talk, I attended the first ever “Bikes, Brains, and Beer” event, to get a feel for the experience and to learn about research occurring at PSU. Then, I met with an artist from PNCA (Dawn Nielson), who was planning to create a large 3D sculpture to enhance the talk. Meeting with Dawn inspired me to leave my comfort zone and attempt to prepare an interactive presentation full of creative explanations about complex concepts. I wanted to give an unforgettable presentation (pun intended…). I wanted to be Bill Nye the Science guy but in heels.

My research explores the role of a unique structure in the brain, called perineuronal nets, to memories associated with drug use. Perineuronal nets are structures surrounding (“peri”) the outside of some cells in the brain (“neuronal”) made up of proteins and sugars in a net-like arrangement (let’s put that all together: peri – neuronal – net). Memories are integral to our lives and make us who we are. Think about it – what tells you how to act and what to think? Past experiences and the memories you have of those experiences, of course! Not all memories are beneficial though. Drug use is plagued with memories; memories of the environment where the drug is taken, paraphernalia associated with drug use, and also how the drug makes the user feel. Those memories make abstinence very difficult and contribute to relapse. My research combines these three areas and asks: Are perineuronal nets, in a way, locking the memories of drug use in the brain? Can I get rid of the nets and get rid of the memory and (hopefully) stop relapse? (Spoiler: it looks like the answer to both questions is yes)

To explore these complex concepts at Velo, I used a memory game that everyone was able to play. Are you more likely to remember a list of words that have strong emotional connections (example: pain or tense) or a list of words that have neutral emotional connections (example: street or phone)? After the memory game, I conditioned the audience to either reside in a certain location or perform a certain task in order to have a drink of their beer, which are ways to create memories associated with drug use in all sorts of animals. To explore the perineuronal net, my 2D images on the screen were pretty, but the 3D net that Dawn created allowed the audience to attempt to fit their own memories (green balloons) into the net…

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The trick with an interactive presentation is finding the balance between having too much that takes away from the depth of the science and having too little that makes fascinating science incredibly dull. We know from the memory word game that strong emotional connections strengthen memory; so making science fun, engaging, and relatable helped to make the presentation unforgettable!

The “Bikes, Brains, and Beer” event is unique in that it is a science talk at a bar that is intimately incorporating pieces of art that appeals to a broader audience. This event makes science and current research accessible to everyone. On the flip side, it also makes art accessible to everyone. I will admit, I don’t fully appreciate art. While in Washington, D.C. I found myself in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, surrounded by some of the most important and honored art pieces, and I was bored (I wanted to go the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History). Yet at the “Bikes, Brains, and Beer” event, I was eager to explore the art component and observe how people interacted with both the science and the art. The two sides of this event make it one of a kind and memorable. “Bikes, brains, and beer” is greater than just a science talk and an art exhibit combined.

So, fellow scientists, explorers, communicators, investigators, and art aficionados, if you haven’t been able to check out this unique event, go! The events will begin in the fall again, so keep checking the NW Noggin Bloggin site to keep up to date on who will be sharing and when that’ll happen.

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Read more about Megan and Dawn’s Velo Cult Presentation…

Velo Cult:  Megan Slaker & Dawn Nielson draw a memorable crowd!

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