SfN’s public-facing website BrainFacts.org serves to educate and inspire site visitors. Since its launch in 2013, it has reflected creative additions including the 3D Brain and been used by scientists and nonscientists across the globe.
In this episode of History of SfN: 50th Anniversary, Nick Spitzer, Atkinson Family Chair Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at University of California, San Diego, and the inaugural editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org, shares how BrainFacts.org came to be, his experience on SfN’s Public Education and Communication Committee, and the importance of scientific outreach.
History of SfN: 50th Anniversary is a limited series podcast highlighting stories from the history of the Society for Neuroscience, recounting groundbreaking moments in the growth of the Society from the perspectives of current, past, and future leaders.
Alongside partnerships and additions to the site that facilitate learning, Spitzer describes his aspirations for the development and use of BrainFacts.org into the future, including how it may increase appreciation for the potential of neuroscience research to improve the health and well-being of people everywhere.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of the Society for Neuroscience.
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SWANSON: Neuroscientists are explorers, adventurers, boldly posing big questions and working to discover incredible insights about the least understood organ of the human body: the brain. For 50 years the Society for Neuroscience has celebrated these scientists and physicians and provided venues for them to explore together.
We'll discuss the most significant trailblazing moments in the history of SfN with some of our current, past, and future leaders. I'm your host, Dr. Larry Swanson, past president of the Society for Neuroscience and professor of biological sciences and psychology at the University of Southern California.
In this episode, we speak with Dr. Nick Spitzer, Atkinson Family Chair, Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, and former editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org. He was also chair of the Public Education and Communication Committee and a member of the Public Information Committee, the Committee on Committees, and the Social Issues Committee.
We'll hear Taylor Johnson, SfN's multimedia manager, talk with Dr. Spitzer about the importance of scientific outreach, the birth and evolution of BrainFacts.org, and his time on the Public Education and Communication Committee.
Be sure to visit neuronline.sfn.org/listen to subscribe to our podcasts and to tune into more of our audio content. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E dot org/listen. Without further ado, Taylor, take it away.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Dr. Swanson. My name's Taylor Johnson and with me today is Dr. Nicholas Spitzer. He's a professor in the Division of Biological Sciences Section of Neurobiology at UC San Diego, as well as the inaugural editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org. We'll get to that later. Dr. Spitzer, thank you so much for joining us.
SPITZER: Thank you, Taylor.
JOHNSON: Glad to have you here. Before we start talking about outreach and education in terms of the Society for Neuroscience over the past 50 years, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind giving a bit of a primer on your academic background and your core research.
SPITZER: Glad to do that. My background was to major in biology as an undergraduate, very exciting time. I worked in the laboratory of John Dowling, an outstanding mentor and neuroscientist, and then went on to medical school briefly but wound up getting a PhD in Steve Kuffler's department at Harvard. That was an amazing time and an amazing experience. Hubel and Wiesel were doing their Nobel Prize-winning work. It was an amazing time.
I then went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship both with Jack McMahan, now at the University of Texas, and Ricardo Miledi, who was at that time at the biophysics unit at University College in London. What a wonderful experience. Two years in London, at that time in the early '70s, quite an amazing time to be there. This was Bernard Katz's unit and a very exciting environment.
I came to UC San Diego in 1972 with an interest in developmental neurobiology, how the brain develops very specifically, and how neurons become excitable at very early stages of development. Then what that can do for the early development of the brain. More recently, continuing the interest in brain plasticity, how the brain changes in response to the environment. I've become very interested in plasticity in the adult nervous system, and it's amazing. It's extensive, and we're learning a lot about it. It's been a great ride and I'm still enjoying the ride.
JOHNSON: That's fantastic. The London story sounds pretty fun. You said you returned from London back to San Diego in 1972. Was this around the time that you first joined the Society for Neuroscience or did you do that prior or later?
SPITZER: The Society for Neuroscience launched two years earlier. By virtue of being in London with a limited travel budget, I couldn't make it back to the States for what was obviously from the get-go going to be a very exciting enterprise. My first SfN meeting was actually here in San Diego, and down at Hotel Circle and some hotels that now have disappeared or become much less prominent than they were at the time. It was a small meeting. Maybe 300, 500 neuroscientists, everybody knew everyone else. It was a very interesting time. After that, I've gone just about every year to the Society meetings. Always enjoy them.
JOHNSON: It's great to hear about your first meeting being in San Diego, because that's obviously one of the three places that the Society still goes to right now. I think San Diego, for obvious reasons, is very much admired. Since you were there too, that's an extra special treat, I guess, to have your first meeting there. I was curious if you had any experiences or specific memories of that first meeting and how that kept you involved with the Society.
SPITZER: The science at that time was less extensive than it is now. Of course, many more neuroscientists in a very rich field of investigators. The meeting was interesting in the sense that there were very few, if any, parallel sessions. You could go to everything instead of having to pick and choose among a menu of extraordinary opportunities. There were very few. In fact, I think there were perhaps no posters at that time. There were the longer presentations, platform presentations. Then there were the short 10-minute talks.
Ten-minute talks were the currency of the realm back in those days. I remember with my colleagues rehearsing those 10-minute talks. The 10-minute window is a tough window to hit precisely. One doesn't want to run over, one doesn't want to run under. That was a very interesting experience. I found myself learning an enormous amount at that point. I was proud of what I knew and I knew I didn't know a lot. The annual meeting has always been, even now, a way for me to get educated about things that I knew I just didn't know enough about.
JOHNSON: What was the level of outreach like at that first meeting, so early '70s Society?
SPITZER: That's a great question. My memory is that it was slim to none. These were early days for the Society. We were focusing, as I think is of course appropriate for a Society, on the core mission, which is to do neuroscience research and understand that neuroscience research and then publish it in scientifically appropriate venues. Reaching out to the public, educating the public. Thinking in those terms was not well represented at that time. Of course, that's all changed now. I think we're going to talk a bit about that.
JOHNSON: Yes, we will. We can touch on this a little later, but do you think maybe that the fact that the outreach was very minimal at that point, do you think that's maybe because neuroscience in and of itself was not as defined as maybe it was later on? Maybe because the meeting was quite small at that time?
SPITZER: I think those are great points. I think the meeting was small. Indeed, the field was small at that time. Over the last decades now, we've been through a number of generations of training neuroscientists who, of course, are now running their own labs and training their students. The field is much bigger. I think also the impact of neuroscience on society had not been appreciated to the extent that certainly the neuroscience is appreciated nowadays, and I think we were working hard and continuing to try to figure out even better ways to reach to the public and help them appreciate how the findings of neuroscience research can be helpful.
JOHNSON: We'll definitely touch on that. Before we get to that, I'd like to talk about, I mean, first of all, it sounds like after your first meeting, it was a very exciting time, a very fertile time, lots of possibilities. You are obviously excited and got into the Society, and I believe you went on the Program Committee, you're on Council, and got to the point of chairing the Public Education and Communication Committee. I'm wondering how this led up to BrainFacts and your involvement with that, but also your progression through the society following your first meeting.
SPITZER: This is a fun thing to recall, Taylor, because I was a real cheerleader and enthusiast for the Society from the get-go. As you noted, I was really excited about what was happening and I wanted to be part of it. I did serve on the Program Committee that sets up the organization of the annual meeting. It was a much smaller committee then than it is now. It's an extraordinarily well-organized and well-run committee to deal with, of course, a much larger number of components presented at the annual meeting. I enjoyed that tremendously.
I was delighted when I was asked in 2006 to consider joining and then chairing the Public Education and Communication Committee, a committee that we affectionately referred to as PECC, which of course, doesn't make much sense to one of us who knows what this is. It was a fusion of two committees. The Society has done this actually quite a lot. It tries to run a lot of its business through committees, volunteers, people like me, who are happy to put in the time to try to achieve goals for the Society. It was a fusion of the Public Information and Neuroscience Literacy committees in this case. This was tremendous fun.
The goal was now quite explicitly to reach out and educate the public about the brain, how it works. Sometimes it doesn't work or doesn't work as well as it should. I think a high watermark of my service on the Public Education and Communication Committee was the development of the Core Concepts, the eight Core Concepts. These were things that one would like one's mother and grandmother to know about the brain. Simple concepts, concepts like that experience in life changes the brain.
To a neuroscientist, of course, this is not news, but the idea is sometimes not as well appreciated by the general public. The idea that the human brain is what endows us with curiosity, which is a fantastic attribute of our species, and things like this. I remember over the course of I think more than a year, we hammered out these eight Core Concepts going back and forth, consulting with people not on the Public Education and Communication Committee, getting feedback, changing things, arguing about things, but these Core Concepts have, I think, been robust. They were initially presented in a text form.
On the BrainFacts.org website, they're presented in a very attractive, interactive way, which I think is proving very effective in reaching the public. This was a wonderful time. I really enjoyed that service on the Public Education and Communication Committee. I think committee service can be tremendously rewarding generally. This was certainly a terrific example of that.
This led on to a subsequent invitation to consider serving as the founding editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org. That was during ... Maybe I'll pause here, Taylor, and see if we want to just keep going or—
JOHNSON: I was going to say, obviously, yes, you were the inaugural editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org, which is 2013. Is that correct?
SPITZER: I think that's correct. Yes, yes. I remember I got the email from Marty Saggese in 2011. We then did a lot of work over the next year to try to ensure that we were going to be setting this up properly. This is not a small deal. This is a public-facing website being mounted by a scientific society. We had no real experience doing this, so we needed to consult with experts. We were very fortunate to have from early on financial support from the Kavli Foundation and the Gatsby Foundation. Really enormous contribution there on their part to get us off the ground. We had focus groups working with the company. I think it was Enforme Interactive, the company that helped us work with focus groups to make sure we were getting things right.
I think we launched late in 2012. That time was, again, very exciting, working with an extraordinary group of staff at SfN. Of course, selecting and persuading colleagues to join me on the editorial board. The editorial board was a very important part of this. I was the cheerleader at the front of it, but it was a team effort there and we had a great editorial board.
Among the many things that we did in those early days with BrainFacts were to try to introduce images. Bear in mind that people often are a very visual species. We often can see things, appreciate things better if we actually see an image of them. We worked also to incorporate the Core Concepts in an easily accessible manner, but in a manner that was reminiscent of the presentation of information that we've done for many years in the BrainFacts book. The BrainFacts book — many will know of this — it was a very successful enterprise. It's still going, still going but translated into numerous languages around the world, the book.
We also partnered with other groups, the Wellcome Trust, a variety of other entities to use some of their content. We established a policy of reviewing the content periodically, trying to ensure that it was factually correct, unlike the information that one can find on some other websites that are not typically run by neuroscientists. This was a terrific opportunity.
I stepped down in 2015, I think. That's my memory. John Morrison took over, a wonderful friend, fabulous neuroscientist, and under his leadership, BrainFacts did a number of very creative things. The 3D Brain has been a fascinating addition to the website. You can rotate the brain in three dimensions and see where all the different parts are.
A further addition was the development of games for people to play, recognizing that people will often learn more and retain more if they first encounter it as a game, not something that is a didactic set of facts that has to be learned, but just as something that emerges in the course of playing the game. This was a lot of fun and I enjoyed working with staff at SfN on that project to try to make that a success.
I think then last year, John stepped down, Richard Wingate took over as editor-in-chief, fabulous guy. We're well-positioned to keep going and keep trying to adjust and to bring in new material, try to keep it always rigorously as correct as we can know it to be through ongoing research and to find yet ever novel ways to reach out and engage the public, engage their curiosity in wanting to know about the brain.
JOHNSON: Absolutely, I mean, just even going to the BrainFacts.org website, it's really impressive, especially how it stands on its own from the Society's landing page, but even just the branding and just what it symbolizes. I definitely want to get into that a little bit later, but I meant to bring it up a bit earlier. I did want to talk about where BrainFacts actually started. Because before BrainFacts.org, we of course have BrainFacts, which I believe started in the early '90s, even 1990 for that first edition. But if you wouldn't mind speaking about the history of BrainFacts, the text, before we get to BrainFacts.org, the experience, I'd love to know more about that.
SPITZER: Yes, yes, this is a great story. In the early '90s, the appreciation developed that it would be really important to have something in lay language that introduced people to the nuts and bolts, the facts about the brain. This led to the development of BrainFacts, the book, 79 pages as I remember it and broken up into different segments, different topics, but all at the level that children could understand in school. This then turned out to be the fuel for the Brain Bee, much like a spelling bee, a competition at the local level around the United States in which students would prepare by reading and trying to learn as much as possible of what they could from BrainFacts, the book, and then compete in these brain bees where a series of questions would be asked and if people couldn't answer the question, they'd be eliminated, much as in a spelling bee.
This, I think, did a lot to try to enhance the introduction of neuroscience to the school curriculum at a very early point. We've had brain bees pretty regularly here in San Diego. For a number of years, I had the pleasure of emceeing the brain bees, serving on the judges' committees, embracing various roles. This was terrific. The recognition came probably from many people in many ways, but certainly to the Public Education and Communication Committee that the printed word, good as it is, has a limited reach. As we came into the 21st century, communication really had much greater penetration if it could be on the internet. This, of course, is what led to the proposal for BrainFacts.org.
In those early days at BrainFacts.org, we had tremendous fun tracking the countries that were logging in to the website because we were a little concerned. This is an English-language website, will it really be picked up in other countries? Sure enough, it was picked up in other English-speaking countries, but the delightful result was that it was also picked up in India, and in Japan, and in Europe, in Norway. I remember particularly, there were a number of people who were on the site and following things. This was terrific. Although the book continues to be available from the Society, the reach of the website is really impressive.
JOHNSON: It sounds like when you were editor-in-chief, almost like when you first joined the Society, it was really a time of excitement, of fertile ground, lots of different possibilities. When you were this inaugural editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org, it sounds like this was uncharted territory for the Society, and that you were really able to see it all come together and develop from those first books.
SPITZER: Yes, this is a fascinating process. I think that certainly for me, and I think very likely for most, if not all, neuroscientists and scientists generally, there's a tremendous excitement in new things, discovering new things. This is I think part of what draws us into research. As I mentioned earlier, we're known for our curiosity and trying to satisfy that curiosity is tremendously satisfying, even if it's sometimes a slow and difficult process.
In the case of Public Education and Communication Committee, which was a new committee, a fusion product, as we discussed, of two other committees. Then again, with BrainFacts.org, there was a lot on the table, one had to figure out, how are we going to organize this? What's going to be in? What are we going to have to say that at least for the time being is out? Maybe we get to that later. A lot of interesting choices to make and when we wanted to make these choices with broad consultations with the people who would be in a good position to make useful suggestions. That whole process was just fabulous. I enjoyed it deeply. It was really a tremendous fun.
JOHNSON: I think it's very interesting too, because you still teach undergraduates, correct?
SPITZER: I do.
JOHNSON: I mean you're at the forefront of moving from, let's say, with current students that are coming out of high school and going into college, you're at that forefront where there are people who take these classes, take the knowledge that maybe they picked up in high school and are able to further that along in undergrad. In some ways, you get a chance to see how much that, as you said, the penetration of audiences or the science proliferation of how well it's done.
SPITZER: Yes, this has been very interesting. I've been teaching undergraduates here at UC San Diego for 47 years and still at it, still quite enthusiastic about it. It's been interesting to see the extent of the preparation of these students as they come to the campus. In the early days, in the '70s for example, I think they’re smart kids and are very motivated but maybe just haven't had the experience of learning about advanced biology and neuroscience. Now, it's not at all unsurprising to see students come in who already know quite a bit of neuroscience and maybe they've done an internship in high school, in which they actually came to work in a lab.
Of course, in part, I'm familiar with this because we take high school interns into our lab here during the summer when they have time and they work with a graduate student or a postdoc on an ongoing project. In the process through osmosis and some degree of paying attention, they learn, I think, about the field. It has been very interesting to see this progress. Although it only shows up periodically that they know about BrainFacts, it always gives me a real glow of satisfaction when that turns out to be the case.
JOHNSON: I always think it's interesting because sometimes with certain sciences, it's a little bit more difficult to engage especially younger audiences, because there are certain stimuli that work better than others. For example, I think charismatic megafauna always seems to stimulate children and students. It's an easy way in to being curious because there's a face, there's eyes, there's something relatable. With the brain and the nervous system, I think it's a little more tricky but you—
SPITZER: Yes, yes.
SPITZER: No, you make a great point there, Taylor, because I remember my own fascination with dinosaurs as a child. I think the fact that they were so unbelievably large is part of what still seems to intrigue us and has been demonstrated in a variety of first run movies. The neat thing about the brain or let's say more broadly, the nervous system, the brain and spinal cord, is that everybody has one and everybody uses it daily and, actually, from moment to moment. Once one draws attention to that and talks about some of the extraordinary cognitive functions we have — memory, for example — that is just about as close to magic as one can get.
SPITZER: Of course, now we are understanding at a higher and higher level of resolution the details of how memories are made and stored. I think that speaking of the brain as something for which one needs a user's manual is a way to sometimes capture the attention of students. By the time they get to college though, one hopes, and the best part I think this is realized, one hopes that they are sufficiently highly motivated that they want to know about the brain. But in these earlier stages, I think emphasizing the fact that you have one, you want it to work well, you want to live for the fullness of your lifetime, is something that can motivate students to be interested in it.
JOHNSON: Absolutely. Steering back to BrainFacts.org, I think it's interesting because again, here is a website that is on the net, it's everywhere, it can be accessed. It's making its presence felt in the social valence of mass culture, if you will. Of course, in the digital age, a lot of maybe not the most correct, let's say, information can get out there. I know you've talked a lot about neuromyths and I think you wanted to combat that with BrainFacts.org.
SPITZER: Yes. The public perception of the brain is, in many ways, a challenge by some very persistent ideas that have been around for a long time that are just flat out wrong on the basis of extensive research that disproves them. These are the neuromyths that one knows about. My favorite one, just to—
JOHNSON: I was going to ask, actually.
SPITZER: A good example here would be the myth that we only use 10% of our brain. It's a fascinating idea. If it were true, then it could be the case that I could have a stroke, loss of blood flow to a region of my brain that would cause no impact on my behavior or thought. We know that's not the case, that a stroke anywhere in the brain produces an impairment. It was amusing to see a movie, the central premise of which was that the protagonist or a young woman suddenly had the ability to use 100% of her brain. As a result, she could do amazing things. It's a charming idea. We know that this is not the case, that we do use 100% of our brain, typically not all at the same time but over the course of a day, all of the brain will be active.
The question becomes, How does one best try to combat neuromyths? It's a tough process. It's a little like trying to overcome the concerns that in a different realm some parents have about vaccination of their children. The measles outbreak that is continuing is perhaps an example that's fueled by this myth. The injury to children on the basis of vaccination has now been addressed repeatedly, scientifically, and found to be very low. One has this problem. We have tried to address this with the soft sell, rather than the hard sell. The challenge of course with any website is to try to find a quantitative way to assess impact.
This was a subject that was very much on our minds from the early days of the development of BrainFacts.org. We wanted to know, are we making a difference? What's the impact? How are we going to quantify that? This is a very tough process. I think we still have a very imperfect way to address the impact of the website. We have a general sense that it is being effective, just for example, on the basis of the number of computers that log into it and the addresses of those computers around the globe. This is very encouraging, but it doesn't give us a direct measure of impact. This will continue, this effort, to try to gradually overcome the neuromyths that are out there.
JOHNSON: Right. I guess this is... If we're looking at the future, I mean, BrainFacts.org, it's about six years old now. Of course, the Society is now celebrating its 50th year, which is quite a milestone.
JOHNSON: In terms of the future, in terms of the next 25, 50 years moving forward, where do you want to see BrainFacts in the future? Also, where would you like to see the Society in terms of education and its support for BrainFacts.org and just education and outreach for the Society? Where do you see that going and where would you like it to go?
SPITZER: Yes, that's a great series of questions there.
JOHNSON: I know, sorry.
SPITZER: Let me try to take them in some order. I think what we've seen already during the brief history of BrainFacts.org is that it's a website that is light on its feet, light on its feet. It keeps addressing the question, What's working? What could work better? We've seen this in the transition from the early form of the website during my time when it was largely text-based. The images were present and we knew the power of images, but it was largely text based.
Under John Morrison's leadership, it transitioned into, as we mentioned, interactives, games, things that involve people in important ways and facilitate learning. I think it's hard to predict the future, but it's very likely that this process of continued attention to the best ways in the social media, in which the world continues to develop, will be the best ways of reaching out to the public.
We've talked about many things. We've talked about having some parallel universes in which we had the website in Chinese or maybe Spanish. Not an easy thing to do, not something that one would be prepared to do now, but something to think about. The technology for that may become available and make that relatively easy at some point.
We've talked about having different websites for different age groups, for very young kids who are really just getting into the literate stage of life and might do better with a different presentation of information about the brain. Or a website directed really toward more senior members of the world population. These are all things that I'm sure will get further consideration along with other things that I hadn't thought of yet. I think this attitude of changing, hanging on to the good stuff and trying to improve other forms of presentation will be a characteristic of our website as we go into the future.
Now, of course, at the end of it all, what is the target? What is one's aspiration in terms of the reach that one would like the website and more broadly, the Society to have not only in the United States but also globally. I think it would be wonderful if the involvement of neuroscience in the undergraduate curriculum could come at an early point. That is happening in various places around the country. It's a challenge. We learned this in the early days of compiling the Core Concepts and getting feedback from high school teachers and others about how this might work and how the presentation of the Core Concepts might fit into the curriculum.
One of the challenges is that schoolteachers already have a lot on their plate. They have a lot of things that they have to be doing nearly simultaneously. To consider adding something onto that almost inevitably means taking something else off. It's not possible to simply add more school day hours onto everybody's agenda. We're already pushing pretty hard there.
Having the website be something that is very engaging that people want to go to because there's something new and cool, something that rivals maybe YouTube in terms of its excitement. These, I think, are going to be ways that the... We might enhance the reach of people so that in their off time they wind up playing... instead of playing Monopoly, they play some cool neuroscience game. All of this will be further into the future. It's fun to think about.
JOHNSON: I mean the possibilities are endless, but it really sounds like it's as exciting as it ever was, as it was 50 years ago.
SPITZER: It certainly is. It certainly is. It's the feast that keeps on coming. It's really a very exciting time. It is interesting to reflect in that regard that an increasing number of scientists, neuroscientists, many friends of mine, are thinking that retirement is really not quite the right thing. I mean, who wants to leave the party when they're having a great time? It's fun to think about what the implications of that are, but it certainly reflects the fact that this is continuing to be a very vibrant and exciting time with lots of wonderful opportunities.
JOHNSON: I hate to be the one to kill this party. I wish this could go on forever. Really, thank you so much for everything you've talked about today.
SPITZER: Thank you, Taylor.
JOHNSON: This has been great. Again, it's been wonderful to hear your stories about BrainFacts.org and just about the history of SfN. Thanks again, and take care.
SWANSON: Thank you for listening to this episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary, brought to you by the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system.
You can hear the rest of this series on iTunes or SoundCloud or by visiting neuronline.sfn.org/listen. That's N-E-U-R-O-N-L-I-N-E.org/listen. We'd like to know what you want to hear in future podcasts. Please take a moment and check out the episode description for a survey link. Help us make the content you want to hear. Find out how you can join SfN’s nearly 36,000 members from more than 90 countries by visiting www.SfN.org/join.
For more information about the benefits available to SfN members, visit www.SfN.org/membership. This episode of The History of the Society for Neuroscience: 50th Anniversary was written and produced by Jack Lee and Taylor Johnson. Senior producers include Amanda Kimball and Melissa Thompson Ayoub. Music and editing were provided by Human Factor Media. Thank you for tuning in and we'll see you next time.