By Richard LeComte
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Everybody knows University of Kentucky students use their brains. What some people may not know is that a group of UK students keep their brains in a College of Arts & Sciences cabinet — and they frequently take them out to show at area schools. Spinal cords, too.
Meet the NeuroCATS: These students are on a mission to spread the word about the excitement of neuroscience to kids, one lobe at a time. The club has reached out to more than 5,000 students in the Fayette County area and about 1,700 students each year.
“There's a bit of a shock factor, but the kids tend to really enjoy it,” said Lilly Swanz, a senior neuroscience major and psychology minor from Paducah, who’s the club’s president. “They love to take pictures and show their friends and family. They’re like, ‘My mom's going to freak out when I take this home.’”
NeuroCATS has about 400 members, of which 60 are active participants in school outreach and other activities. The club’s an outgrowth of the interdisciplinary neuroscience major; its faculty sponsor is Mark Prendergast, University Research Professor and director of the B.S. in neuroscience program. He said the club was founded shortly after the major began in 2015.
“I went to lunch with several brand-new folks who wanted to join the major,” Prendergast said. "At the very end of the lunch, one of these students, who is the founding president of NeuroCATS said, ‘You know Dr. P.? We should start a club.’”
The founding president, Meghan Turner — now a neuroscience doctoral student in UK’s College of Medicine — was the sparkplug, so to speak, who energized the club’s outreach. Prendergast said neuroscience faculty members were doing outreach in schools, and Turner liked the idea.
“Meghan’s just this force of nature,” he said. “She said, ‘We'll make outreach in the public schools the mission of NeuroCATS. For the first few semesters, I would buy pizza to have at the meetings. As more people joined, it became a student club registered with UK, and within a year they were generating their own finances by selling NeuroCATS T-shirts. Meghan drew the logo. That is still the NeuroCATS logo. I've been the faculty adviser since 2016, and I haven't bought them pizza since 2016. They generate their own funds.”
One of the great aspects of neuroscience is that researchers keep generating 10 new questions for each puzzle they solve. NeuroCATS try to bring this excitement to students in presentations aimed at their grade level. They can go out for a single visit or take over a classroom for a few days.
“If we're just going once, we'll take the brain, and we'll talk about the different lobes and functions of the brain," Swanz said. “We have different levels of how in depth we explain that material based on the age of the classes that we're working with. A lot of what we do in high schools is more focused on careers in neuroscience and trying to recruit students for the discipline.”
The club operates with a team of outreach coordinators who schedule the visits. Zach Brown, a neuroscience major from Lexington, coordinates high school outreach; Lexi Noletti works with middle schools. A lot of the presentations the group performs in school can be fun and stimulating, too. For example, they often use a device that shows how electricity from a forearm can produce power. Or they stage races.
"We always do a game in elementary schools,” he said. “Usually we play a relay game, because the point is that neurons are trying to get information across the neuron from one side to the other. So you're the dendrite, or you're the synaptic terminal end, and whoever can get the ‘information’ across the fastest wins.”
On visits entailing multiple weeks with older students, the NeuroCATS can dive deeply into issues involving brain disorders.
“We’ll start off with an introductory presentation, and when we have more time, we can talk about memory and disorders," Brown said. “When we talk about the head, we remind them to wear their helmets when biking and stuff like that. We'll take an egg (to represent the brain), and they get to design their own ‘helmet' for it. They might put a Styrofoam cup around the egg or whatever classroom supplies they have on hand. Then we do an egg drop test to show you need to protect your brain.”
But the stars of the show are the actual human brains and spinal cords the students bring. Prendergast keeps them in a storage cabinet, and the students check them out when necessary. Swanz said most students are eager to come up front and look at the preserved brains and cords, and a couple might hang back, wary of these discoveries. But all the students can learn something.
"A lot of the kids know what a brain looks like, but spinal cords are something new,” said Rohan Desai, the elementary school outreach coordinator and biochemistry major from around Hopkins, Kentucky. “I get a thrill seeing these kids figure out for the first time that they actually have this thing in their back. It's pretty cool.”
Brown got to return to his Lexington elementary school, Clays Mill, and reconnect with his science teacher.
“There’s been a 10- or 15-year gap, but it was still interesting,” Brown said. “I still remember the way out of the building and everything like that. It was kind of nostalgic. But it was a good outreach, and it was good to see my teacher again.”
Club members engage in social activities like parties and recreational events, but the NeuroCATS are best known for outreach. Swanz said sometimes the best questions she gets from the students are ones that club members can’t answer — because these secrets lie waiting to be discovered by the next generation of NeuroCATS.
“Either we as students haven't learned the answers yet, or there's not enough research to support the answers,” she said. "We also talk a lot about research and what that looks like. We have different animal models. We can take those and talk about how we use comparative anatomy and learn things about the animals. But then we learn that it doesn't translate to humans. And now we're back at square one. We definitely talk about that too.”