Stories of Engagers: Corette Wierenga
Dr. Corette Wierenga researches the connections between nerve cells in the brain; synapses. For the Weekend van de Wetenschap on October 6, 2019, she and her colleagues developed an activity in which children (and their parents) looked through a microscope and learned how brain connections change.
Quite a complicated study to explain to children, I think?
“Everyone has a brain, so I notice that everyone is interested in my research to some extent. In my experience, children are particularly curious about what happens in their brains if they have to remember something or if they experience something very special.”
“This year during the Weekend van de Wetenschap, I also tried to explain what I am researching specifically and what I wrote articles about last year. For example, we see that brain connections are constantly changing. New connections are very dynamic, but at some point they stabilise due to certain substances. I am currently researching those substances. One of those substances is associated with an increased risk of autism. It was nice to be able to explain to visitors that brain connections are very dynamic and that researchers have to start their research on a very small scale.”
Why do you think your research is important for children to understand?
“Children's brains are still developing. This development takes 25 years and not all brain areas develop at the same time. Babies first develop senses such as seeing and feeling. Then they develop their motor area, such as talking and cycling. Then higher cognitive skills such as social interactions, social play and planning. Our research shows that it is very important for brain connections that children play, learn and experience both positive and negative things."
What kind of activity did you develop for the Weekend van de Wetenschap?
“During a demonstration we showed slices of mouse brain under the microscope. During short talks I explained how we research how new brain connections are made in living brain slices.”
“We also received seed fund from the Public Engagement Program this year. We used the money for a large brain model, with which we could show all components to the visitors.”
Were there any problems you encountered?
“Last year my research group also participated, we made up something beforehand and looked at what did and did not work during the event. The children actually found everything fun and interesting. In addition, we noticed that there were almost no children who found the mouse brain yucky or scary. In particular there were many good questions, such as "what about Alzheimer's?" There was even one boy who was copying our slides for his school talk about the brain. "