NeuroDevNet trainees receive national award for science outreach from CIHR

April 26, 2013

NeuroDevNet trainees Tamara Bodnar and Parker Holman have won the 2013 Let’s Talk Science CIHR-Synapse Award for Science Outreach.

Bodnar and Holman, neuroscience PhD students in UBC Professor Joanne Weinberg’s lab, are studying the effects of alcohol on the developing brain. Their passion for taking their research out of the lab and into Vancouver high school science classrooms proved infectious to grades 8, 9 and 10 students.


Tamara Bodnar, right, talks about neuroanatomy with Vancouver high school students


The annual award, announced April 26, recognizes outstanding and innovative health research-related activity done by Let's Talk Science volunteers. Bodnar and Holman developed a three-day program to increase awareness of the short- and long-term effects of alcohol on the adult body, and the developing fetus.

“We took a nuts and bolts approach – how does alcohol affect behaviour,”says Holman, a second-year PhD student. Students tested the effects of different concentrations of alcohol on brine shrimp eggs and adult round worms (C. elegans), and were encouraged to relate their observations to what would happen in an adult human.

“We talked about early development, and what happens if you are exposed to alcohol before you’re fully developed,” adds Holman. “We supplemented with a bit of neuroanatomy, and examined rat and sheep brains.”

In their feedback, students who worked with Bodnar and Holman highlighted how much they enjoyed the open-ended curriculum. The un-canned, “tell us what you see and what you think it means” approach intrigued the participants, and encouraged them to explore a wide range of questions: why would a pregnant woman drink alcohol? How much is too much? Is it really right to expose animals to alcohol if we know it’s harmful?

Experimentation is the best way to go about learning, says Bodnar, a fourth-year PhD student. “People underestimate kids sometimes. They are super-capable of learning about subjects that are typically reserved for university students.”

“We let the students come to their own conclusions based on their results,” adds Holman, “that's how science works!"

"This is an outstanding program - unique for the public schools in both content and approach," says Dr. Weinberg, PhD supervisor to both Bodnar and Holman. "It not only teaches students the scientfic method, but demonstrates first-hand and in real time the adverse effects of alcohol on both adult and developing organisms. It truly provides a scientficially-based life lesson on the adverse effects of alcohol."

As with many teaching experiences, the learning went both ways. Holman said he was surprised at how interested the students were in the effects of adult exposure to alcohol. For Bodnar, “the biggest thing was how to discuss our research with the public. It was a big learning experience just to develop the course material.”

Holman and Bodnar will be traveling to London Ontario in June to receive their award. In the meantime, they are already discussing another science outreach project – a professional day program for interested science teachers. “We’d like to bring them in and help them develop curriculum based on our research to use in the classroom,” says Holman.

“Obviously, none of this would have been possible without the amazing support from NeuroDevNet,” he adds. “The funding we received helped make the activity possible!”

Visit the Let’s Talk Science website for more information about the award.

Parker Holman, right, continues the dialogue about alcohol's impacts on the brain