Q&A with with Ferhan Esen, Ph.D.

Get to Know the Brain Awareness Week Partners
March 14, 2012

Ferhan-Esen-2012Ferhan Esen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Biophysics
Faculty of Medicine
Eskişehir Osmangazi University

Dana Foundation: You’ve been a Brain Awareness Week (BAW) partner since 1999. How has the campaign changed over time?

Ferhan Esen: I began participating in BAW activities in 1999, when I was the chairman of the Eskişehir Chapter of the Neuroscience Society of Turkey. I was asked by the principal of the preschool at Eskişehir Osmangazi University (ESOGU) to collaborate with her on teaching the children about the importance of the brain. It was exciting to give an interactive presentation to the children, which allowed them to explore their senses and to think about how their brains work.

Over the years, several activities, including a presentation on the senses and a brain drawing contest for elementary school kids, have become regular events for BAW in Turkey, and the number of participating elementary and middle schools has increased. In order to perform activities in many schools, we formed BRAIN TEAMs in 2001, through which ESOGU medical students volunteer in the schools. Fortunately for me, I often have students asking to participate in school visits and talks. With the participation of fellow neuroscientists and clinicians, several conferences, lectures, and discussions have also been held for the general public since 2002.

In 2006, students of the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture joined us with a 3D exhibition of creative constructions. This is now our feature BAW event. Similarly, folk dancing, performed by a group of students from the ESOGU Folklore Research and Training Center (HAMER), is an essential part of our BAW.

A group of university students wearing traditional dresses are performing a folk dance. Photo Credit: Tuncay Erdogan
Medical students, Merve Topçu and Leyla Yildiz, making presentation to class. Photo Credit: Tuncay Erdogan
Preschool children playing with brain maze. Photo Credit: Hakan Koç.
Children inspecting various brain models: supplied with a project supported by FENS. Photo credit: Hakan Koç
Children inspecting a brain model: supplied with a project supported by FENS. Photo Credit: Hakan Koç.
Preschool children showing painting on neuron and brain drawings. Photo Credit: Hakan Koç.
Preschool children making brain figure with colored puzzles. Photo Credit: Tuncay Erdogan
A group of students participating brain bee competition. Photo Credit: Tuncay Erdogan

In 2008, secondary school (high school) students, too, joined in the celebration of BAW, when we started holding the renowned Brain Bee competition in Turkey. Dr. Norbert Myslinski, founder of the U.S. National Brain Bee, was very helpful at the beginning stages. I take great pleasure knowing that several medical students in our faculty were once Brain Bee participants.
Integral to our overall success has been funding assistance from the Faculty of Medicine and ESOGU to organize school visits and to print materials, including posters, booklets, books, and bookmarks. Each year we’ve been able to deliver printed materials to schools.

The Dana Foundation has also been a generous provider of materials and resources for BAW. I translated the Dana booklets It’s Mindboggling!, More Mindbogglers!, and The Mindboggling Workbook into Turkish so that we could fully benefit from these youth-focused materials. I also translated two books used as study guides for the Brain Bee: Brain Facts and Neuroscience. I would like to thank the Dana Foundation, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), and the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) for their permission to translate these publications.

In 2010, we acquired brain models through funding from the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies’ (FENS) project “Let’s Explore the Brain and Sense Organs.” These brain models have increased interest in BAW activities and improved our school presentations.

DF: One of the major BAW events that you’re involved in is the Turkish National Brain Bee. In addition to the actual competition, the high school competitors are treated to a number of brain-related activities throughout the day. What do you have planned for this year?

FE: The Turkish National Brain Bee (TNBB), which we hold in Eskişehir at ESOGU, celebrated its fifth anniversary this year. To notify students of the March 6 competition, we alerted local high schools continuously.

This year, TNBB was a little different from previous years, with two lectures, “Harmful Substances to the Brain” and “Neurophysiological Principles of Behavior,” presented before the competition. Lab visits took place as always. In the biophysics lab, my colleagues and I gave a demonstration about sympathetic nervous system activity. In the anatomy lab, members of the anatomy department gave a demonstration about the brain and nervous system.

The awards ceremony for the Bee was held on March 12, the official start of BAW. The BAW opening speech was given by The Rector of ESOGU, Prof. Dr. Hasan Gönen. The opening lecture on “Sign and Perception” was given by the Head of Ethics Committee of ESOGU. Afterwards, the winners of TNBB received their awards.

DF: How do you recruit fellow scientists to participate in BAW? Has their response been positive?

FE: At the beginning this was based on personal contacts. However, it is not possible for everyone to participate ever year. To ensure sufficient participation, in November I inform the Dean’s Office of the Faculty of Medicine about upcoming BAW events in March. The Dean’s Office announces the timing of BAW to all of the departments. Scientists interested in volunteering answer the call, and I arrange the specific events, the schedule, and the venues. I would like to thank the members of the Faculty of Medicine of the ESOGU. They are enthusiastic and collaborative.

DF: Some of your BAW events incorporate singing, dancing, and art. How do you relate these creative endeavors to the brain?

FE: Singing, dancing, motor control, rhythm, balance, and timing are all related to the brain. Increasing evidence shows that physical activity is very important for body and brain health. Environmental stimuli (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) are also necessary for brain health. Moreover, to be healthy, everyone needs social interactions. Dancing combines physical activity with social interaction and therefore may be especially beneficial to the brain. We chose to partner with arts organizations for two major reasons: first, social activities increase interest in BAW, and second, attendees can interact on a physical and social level.

DF: A recurring feature of your BAW program involves training volunteer students from the Eskisehir Osmangazi University Faculty of Medicine to teach interactive lectures to middle school students in lower-income neighborhoods. How do you prepare the volunteer students for these visits and what do you hope they’ll gain from the experience?

FE: I believe that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and BAW is a great opportunity for my students to teach young students. Their presentations, which I help them to prepare, require many steps, including writing, editing, checking the scientific accuracy, and adjusting the material to the appropriate level for the classroom. Simple experiments and demonstrations can be part of an excellent presentation.

The medical students enjoy participating in these school visits and sharing their knowledge with the children. Sometimes, my students even learn new and exciting things about the brain and the nervous system that are not covered in their textbooks. They also learn about social responsibility and find an increased sense of self-confidence from students’ positive responses to their presentations.

This year 20-25 medical students were trained to form “BRAIN TEAM-2012.” They gave the talks “From Neuron to Brain” and “Brain and Sense Organs.”