John Archie Pollock Receives 2020 SfN Science Educator Award

Nicky Penttila
October 29, 2020

Each year, the Society for Neuroscience recognizes outstanding neuroscientists who have strongly added to public education and awareness about the field. The Dana Foundation sponsors these awards. This year’s award was presented to Professor John Archie Pollock, Ph.D., of Duquesne University, co-director of the Chronic Pain Research Consortium and director of the Partnership in Education.

Q: What is most satisfying about sharing science with non-scientists?

Dr. Pollock: Seeing the spark of understanding; seeing someone realize that they can understand a piece of everyday science and then that they are inspired to look to understand more.

Back in the 1990s, I was part of an eclectic team of neuroscientists and artists who received funding from the National Science Foundation to make a planetarium show about the brain. I’d had a small part in doing an earlier planetarium show, on cell biology, and now we wanted to turn the dome of the planetarium into the dome of the brain, using multiple video projectors, and get the audience involved, moving objects on the screen (remember button-boxes!), along with a live presenter and more.

One of the central pieces that I produced was looking at how the visual system works. With the help of a really talented team of animators, we created an animation that started with the light at the tip  of a candle and followed those photons into the eye past the five layers of cells in the retina, activating the ganglion cells and then taking a rollercoaster ride into the visual cortex. My goal was to make that animation visually, artistically stunning and exciting, but also scientifically as accurate as we could. (see animation at bottom of story)

The show played in the Buhl planetarium in Pittsburgh for a year or so and was seen by a lot of school groups and weekend families. That animation is something that I still use in lectures , now 22 years after we produced it.

A few years ago, I was asked to give a lecture on neuroscience at a local middle school, talk to hundreds of kids and then do some hands-on activities. At the end of my lecture, as the kids are marching out of the auditorium, a teacher came up to me—very excited—and she said, “That retina animation, where did you get that?” And I said, well, I directed that, it was part of a planetarium brain show. And she says, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I saw that at the museum when I was a kid, and that is what inspired me to become a science teacher.” How cool is that! That one point of contact affected this young girl, who then went on to share her passion for science.

Having worked with museums and schools and mentored lots of people in different parts of their career, there’s lots of little stories like that that. Stories that give you that moment of satisfaction, “OK, it’s worked, I’ve made this connection.”

If we can let kids see that they can understand and enjoy science when they are little, pre-adolescent, then they can carry that appreciation with them the rest of their lives. In the same way that we teach kids to play T-ball or soccer when they are little, where it’s done for the joy of the game and for exercise, we can let kids experience the science of their everyday world. When we engage kids in sports, we don’t expect them to grow up to be a pro athlete—we do it for the joy of the game. Science is no different: Kids who discover the joy in science will not necessarily grow up to be a scientist, engineer, or physician, but as a member of a questioning and informed electorate. And we as a society really need that.

Q: Has your outreach changed this year? Are more people trying your science and reading apps? 

A: Absolutely. I was in the right place at the right time to work on these apps. While I have been directing my basic science research in molecular and cellular biology of pain and chronic pain, I have been nudging my outreach to, at least in part, embrace neurobiology. I’ve been fortunate to receive NIH Science Education Partnership Awards to do projects that are included in the Partnership in Neuroscience Education project. Two of our main accomplishments were the creation of the Bibliotech Adaptive Reader, an iOS/Android app that is an interactive story, branched build-your-own-adventure with embedded games, animations, videos and even the ability to pick your reading level-adaptive text. One story is about the importance and science of sleep, the second story is on sports-related concussion: two fun stories that give us the chance to weave in a lot of neuroscience. These and other projects are developed in a research-oriented manner and each goes through substantive evaluation and assessment paired with useful and concise teacher curriculum aids. Some of the emergent studies are packaged into scholarly peer-reviewed papers (including this one, and this one).

As that grant was coming to an end, I applied to start a new project, aimed at addressing the rising crisis of stress and anxiety in kids, which is most profoundly seen in increases in addiction and ultimately suicide. The research question is whether teaching kids in elementary and middle school about the fundamental biology of stress, anxiety and minor “everyday” pains, combined with non-pharmaceutical management techniques, would help them manage their challenges as they grow in significance—as children mature to college-age young adults.

That grant got funded last year, and the first thing that we did was start a survey of elementary and middle school students, separately their parents, and then also their teachers, asking about their stresses. The survey was completed in early 2020, before Covid-19, and we’re now repeating it to see what issues have shifted as a result of our “new normal.” So later this year, we’ll have a unique pre-post report that will be used to guide the next set of stories that we will tell. I think we all know that Covid isn’t going away, so I suspect that we’ll have plenty to address.

When the lockdown went into effect, we also quickly adapted a board game that we were developing on 10 common infectious disease that affect school age kids addressing hygiene, healthy habits and even vaccination. The game was modified to include an 11th disease, SARS CoV-2, which causes Covid-19. That game, YOU MAKE ME SICK, just won a 2020 International SERIOUS Play Silver Medal in the category of U.S. and Canada Tabletop K-12 STEM Education.

We have also shifted focus to develop a growing collection of infographics, which we call interFACTives, that are all about stress. So, we are trying to release things that we feel will be useful now, as opposed to taking a more protracted developmental approach to new products.

And, yes, we have seen up-ticks in our web traffic during the lock-down.  We’re glad that we can be a free resource.

Q: Wow. Has everything that you’ve produced worked out like you thought it would?

A:  NO!  Some things that we’ve worked on have been total failures; other things were designed to show the “cracks”:  full-fledged experiments. But I approach the work of producing STEM ed and health literacy resources in ways that are similar to the basic science research that I do. We do experiments, we test with the audience and refine. We developed a complete planetarium/dome show for the singular purpose of showing it to test audiences to see what worked for them and what didn’t. We developed a different planetarium show in two distinct formats, again to see where the audience learned best. One format worked better, so the other is on the shelf; hours of art and animation have been produced that will never be seen in public.

This is no different than what I’ve done in the lab. I’ve given laboratory research projects to undergrads who have mistakenly poured them down the drain – literally. My grad students and I have chased an observation to then find that it’s not statistically significant. And just as we strive to publish our best and most telling research results, I don’t release to the public a game, app, story, animation, or TV show unless we have achieved a level of excellence that the whole team is proud of and that conveys the message that we want. This is important because your audience has really sophisticated sense of what is quality media. If something looks too home-made, then the audience will almost necessarily give it less credence than if the production values are high.

Q: Did you have a model or a mentor for this work? Have any advice for fellow scientists on reaching out?

A: I didn’t really have a mentor who encouraged a simultaneous career as a neuroscientist and as an executive producer of digital media. I do have a mother and father who always encouraged me to do all that I can and to have fun doing it. On the academic side, in fact, quite a few colleagues actively discouraged me for a number of years. Only one colleague, the late Bill Brown of Carnegie Mellon University, was supportive in that he introduced me to the NIH SEPA funding mechanisms, which has been the principal funding base for my STEM Ed and Health literacy projects. Without that introduction to SEPA, I would not have had the money to be creative.

As for advice – sure; (1) find your passion and don’t be shy about getting involved in sharing what you know. (2) find out who your audience is, what they know and don’t know and what they want to know. Learn the language that they are comfortable with. (3) think in terms of telling stories – human brains are really good at listening to a good story, and remembering the story. And if the story is sprinkled with good science, your audience will remember both. (4)  Cultivate partnerships across disciplines and throughout the community (meaning schools, museums, community centers, 4-H, places of worship…). This means that you recognize that you are not always the ‘expert’. (5) The pre-tenure academic should probably start small and keep it simple, but be rigorous and publish on what you observe and what you did with your outreach as you figure out what works (some things will be a total fail and that’s ok). (6) Cultivate diverse funding sources. (7) And finally, don’t over-extend yourself. You have a lab, you have students, you may have a family (which is most important – and don’t forget to call your parents). All that you do should be fun.