The virtuous cycle of research, communication and education: an interview with Prof. Antonio Carlos Roque

The Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center for Neuromathematics (CEPID NeuroMat) has ripened its education, culture and communication strategy. A meeting at the University of São Paulo on January, 27, 2015, brought together NeuroMat’s scientific dissemination team as well as Prof. Ernst Hamburger, Prof. Lisbeth Cordani, Prof. Annie Vialà, Prof. Antonio Galves, Prof. André Frazão Helene and Prof. Antonio Carlos Roque. The latter has assumed a leading role in devising NeuroMat’s dissemination strategy.

NeuroMat meeting on scientific dissemination. Standing, Prof. Antonio Carlos Roque; seating, from left to right, Prof. André Frazão Helene, Prof. Antonio Galves, Prof. Annie Vialà, Prof. Ernst Hamburger and Prof. Lisbeth Cordani. Available on Wikimedia Commons

On what follows, Prof. Roque, from the Department of Physics of the School of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters at the University of São Paulo at Ribeirão Preto, brings up elements that inform NeuroMat’s ripened scientific-dissemination strategy. On the fully transcribed interview, a sequence of the January-27 meeting, Prof. Roque makes the case for both new-media and conventional activities. According to him, "scientists involved in a project like NeuroMat should make an active effort to find ways to convey their knowledge and findings in an accessible way,” and NeuroMat areas, such as Research and Technology Transfer, should have a set routine of providing updates on ongoing work.

The Latin American School on Computational Neuroscience (LASCON), a reference event in computational neuroscience, has been a major initiative of Prof. Roque, and in the January-27 meeting it was indicated that this pioneering initiative should become a NeuroMat activity. In the 2016 edition, in which NeuroMat plans to be directly involved, LASCON will last for four weeks and cover realistic and simplified neuronal and network models as well as neural data analysis methods. According to Prof. Roque, "An important characteristic of the school is its emphasis on hands-on learning, which means that students take not only theoretical but also practical classes in which they learn software tools used in neural modeling and data analysis with the help of lecturers and tutors." More details on LASCON can be seen at its webpage.

Prof. Roque believes there might be a virtuous cycle among research, communication and education. In this line, he remained a subscriber of the National Network of Science for Education (CpE), whose general goal is to strengthen the link between scientific development and education. In the launching document, that was released in late 2014, this network mentioned two general issues that it intended to deal with: (1) the need to connect scientific knowledge on education across departments, as a means of creating deep, global understanding of educational processes; and (2) the importance to foster and aggregate empirical evidences on schooling and learning that may contribute to bettering public policies. Other NeuroMat members subscribed to this initiative, on which one may learn more here (in Portuguese). Read the interview below:

What are general and specific lines of activity that may inform NeuroMat's prospective scientific-dissemination strategy?

I think there are two major types of scientific dissemination: one for scientists and one for the general public. I think NeuroMat's strategy must address both of them. To do so, NeuroMat should make extensive use of modern day knowledge storage and dissemination tools provided by the internet, like webpages, social network sites, virtual classes, etc. But it should also rely on more traditional means of knowledge dissemination, like presential classes and seminars. The information content and level, as well as the language used in each case should be tailored to the type of audience, whether scientists or the general public, and its possible subdivisions, e.g. scientists with training in mathematics or not, or adults or children. To be more specific, I think NeuroMat's major lines of scientific dissemination activities should be:

- Website and Facebook pages to disseminate NeuroMat's activities and scientific achievements as well as relevant worldwide Neuromathematics-related news;

- Online tutorials, seminars and courses to present in a more systematic and detailed way key concepts and tools used in Neuromathematics;

- Presential versions of the above plus other types of presential activities, e.g. pedagogical activities with children, which allow for a richer type of interaction between lecturer/teacher and student.

A key challenge of NeuroMat's scientific-dissemination activities is to establish fruitful connections to the two other areas of the Center —research and technology transfer. How could such connections be improved?

I think it is necessary that the three areas be in permanent contact, which requires the teams involved with them to set fast and reliable information exchange communication channels. It is important to have in mind that developments in the three areas occur at different paces. The scientific dissemination area requires new information on a fast and regular basis —daily, weekly or monthly—, because of the community's demand for information. Research and technology transfer outputs, on the other hand, occur at much longer and irregular time intervals.

NeuroMat remains a high-level research center —thus working on complicated subjects—, yet one of its core missions is to disseminate accessible scientific knowledge. What kind of communication, culture and education activities is necessary to cope with this mission?

I think scientists involved in a project like NeuroMat should make an active effort to find ways to convey their knowledge and findings in an accessible way. Of course, the notion of what is accessible varies from individual to individual, and one of the key tasks of scientific dissemination teams (in NeuroMat and other projects) is to set standards for that. This is obviously not an easy task which can be done quickly. My personal experience is that it requires a lot of trial and error attempts and a high degree of openness of people involved. A nice byproduct of this effort is that it usually leads to a better understanding of the research itself.

LASCON has been a major setting for the advance of computational neuroscience, and it has become a key action of NeuroMat's scientific dissemination plan. Could you please explain what motivated you to launch this initiative? LASCON has already had five editions: how did this School evolve? What are characteristics of this successful initiative that could contribute to other NeuroMat educational activities?

Computational neuroscience has had a growing impact on the development of neuroscience in the past 30 years. To stimulate this growth, several countries and economic blocs in the world started in the late 1980s to held regular schools on computational neuroscience. Examples are the Summer Course on Methods in Computational Neuroscience at the Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, USA, which will have its 28th edition this year, the EU Advanced Course in Computational Neuroscience, which started as the Crete Course in Computational Neuroscience and will have its 2015 edition in Portugal, and the Okinawa Computational Neuroscience Course.

During my student years I attended some computational neuroscience schools in Europe and the US and there were always a few Brazilian and Latin American students participating in them as well. And I always thought that a computational neuroscience school in Brazil would give the opportunity for more Latin American students to have access to this growing field. In 2005, at a meeting in San Antonio, TX, USA, I talked about creating a computational neuroscience school in Brazil with Prof. James Bower (one of the creators of the US summer course in Woods Hole) and other researchers. Prof. Bower and most of the others liked the idea and accepted my invitation to come to Brazil as instructors in the school. Then, with the help of my PhD student Rodrigo Freire Oliveira (now at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Lisbon, Portugal), I designed and organized the first edition of the LASCON, which was held in 2006 at the University of Sao Paulo at Ribeirao Preto. The first edition lasted only for two weeks and covered mostly biophysically detailed (aka "realistic") neural models. The school success prompted me to carry on with the project and the school has grown both in duration and range of topics in the next editions. Now it lasts for four weeks and covers both realistic and simplified neuronal and network models as well as neural data analysis methods. An important characteristic of the school is its emphasis on hands-on learning, which means that students take not only theoretical but also practical classes in which they learn software tools used in neural modeling and data analysis with the help of lecturers and tutors. I think this hands-on approach is the most important contribution of LASCON to other educational activities taken by NeuroMat.

Along with other NeuroMat members, you have subscribed to the National Network of Science for Education. Could you explain this initiative? Independently from this Network, what is your take on the relation of science and education?

The National Network of Science for Education was founded on November 2014, and its actions are still being structured. The focus will be on integrating basic research evidence on learning with practical knowledge and expertise on education. Education is a complex activity because it involves people, tools and strategies. Science seeks to understand phenomena by offering rational and empirically testable explanations to them. Both science and education rely on theoretical frameworks, and both use empirical evidence to modify or adapt their theoretical constructs. I think the relation between science and education is complex but there certainly is one and it should be fruitful to investigate it.

This piece is part of NeuroMat's Newsletter #12. Read more here

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