Do ants have brains? What do alien brains look like? Why did you decide to go into this field? These are just some of the questions posed to UC Davis Health pathologists Brittany Dugger and Verónica Martínez Cerdeño by inquisitive school children.

Students can touch pig, rat and even human brain specimens.
Students can touch pig, rat and even human brain specimens.

“They’re intrigued and get so excited,” says Dugger, assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine who studies brain diseases. “We walk into a classroom and the kids say, ‘They’re here, they’re here!’”

Every March, Dugger and Martínez Cerdeño conduct community outreach as part of Brain Awareness Month. With colleagues who also volunteer their time, they use a hands-on approach to inspire thousands of growing minds each year by bringing real brains to classrooms.

Brain form and function

While they operate separate programs, Dugger and Martínez Cerdeño both focus their curriculum on a few key points, such as comparative anatomy and brain health. For example, kids learn that protective gear like a bike helmet is important to prevent brain injuries and that drug use can damage the brain. Students also hear about the unique characteristics of animal brains that help critters survive in the wild.

“Think of a bird,” Dugger says. “They fly miles and miles and can see a small rodent from the sky. We can’t do that. Mice have a much better sense of smell than we do, so the olfactory bulb in a mouse brain is much bigger comparatively. Their brains are different because they have different functions.”

Students engage in age-appropriate, interactive activities like coloring worksheets, and they touch brain specimens from pigs, horses, rats, mice, ducks, rabbits − even humans. Older students are introduced to more complicated concepts like what the central nervous system controls and learn about career opportunities in science.

Dugger began this volunteer work as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University more than a decade ago and has toted the program with her throughout her career.

The next generation of brain researchers

Martínez Cerdeño conducts similar outreach through The Ventricular Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Sacramento she co-founded in 2016. She also started to volunteer as a young investigator during her postdoctoral research days at UC San Francisco, where she targeted Spanish-speaking schools.

“I realized when I came to California that there’s a high percentage of Hispanic people from low socioeconomic situations,” says Martínez Cerdeño, an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “My volunteers and I are role models for students like that.”

The pathologists serve as educators and positive examples for kids, too.

“Students see me and say, ‘Wow, you’re a doctor and you speak Spanish!’” says Martínez Cerdeño. “They believe more is possible when they see someone like them in my profession.”

Dugger and Martínez Cerdeño, who present to kids ages 5 to 18, also are connected with the Center for Neuroscience at UC Davis that is home to another K-12 brains to classrooms-style program for graduate students. Dugger recently spoke at NeuroFest, the center’s signature event, and Martínez Cerdeño is a Center for Neuroscience affiliate faculty member.

For Martínez Cerdeño, the presentations also encourage students, especially young girls, to be ambitious.

“I want to give them the tools to succeed,” says Martínez Cerdeño. “Even if you are Hispanic and you are a woman, you can do anything you want in life.”