In Conversation: Jill Crittenden, Scientific Advisor, McGovern Institute

MIT McGovern Institute Scientific Advisor Jill Crittenden, Ph.D., led the McGovern tours. She was an integral member of the MIT Museum Dana Center planning grant team from the start. 

Q: The goal of the Dana Center project is to develop activities that benefit from the contributions of neuroscientists, ELSI scholars, and public engagement, while providing value to people from all three domains. Did participating in the McGovern tours show you ways that these domains might influence each other? Did you derive unique value from working on an activity where these domains intersect?

Jill Crittenden: We’ve given younger students tours of the McGovern Institute before. But in the past, we did typical tours, pedagogical ones, with no involvement from ELSI scholars or public engagement specialists. These tours were different. We worked with ethicist Stephanie Bird, who is also a neuroscientist affiliated with MIT, who gave a presentation to the McGovern neuroscientists about ethical considerations. We worked with the teacher of the sixth grade students we hosted during these tours, to help prepare him to teach them about ethics. He said that was really exciting for him, as he’d never included an ethical component in his classroom before. The kids also seemed really engaged by the ethical questions when they were here. At MIT, we—the neuroscientists—work with lawyers and ethicists. Those jobs are part of the neuroscience academic track. It’s important to have kids interested in those roles too. 

Working with the public engagement specialists from the museum was a new experience for us as well. We learned about ways to engage the students—for instance, by talking to them afterwards to see what worked for them. That’s something the MIT Museum does frequently. 

The neuroscientists also learned a lot from interacting with the sixth graders. They learned that talking to a sixth grader isn’t that different from talking to any lay person; they gained insight into how to communicate not only to sixth graders but more generally about their work. Some of them said they hadn’t thought about how they were communicating until they were challenged by the sixth graders. A number of students in the wet lab asked, for example, Why is the human brain more important than a rat brain? As a result of encounters like these over the four days of the tours, I saw some of the neuroscientists change the way they did their presentations, based on the way the sixth graders were responding. They learned to express respect for a human brain that came from someone who was loved by the people who donated that brain; to communicate that working with a human brain is not a trivial thing. Many of the kids we spoke to afterwards also said that they didn’t think they would be able to touch real brains or see real brains in their lives ever again in their lives. That seemed significant. 

During one part of the day, the kids were grouped into teams to design their own brain-computer interface devices. One team came up with an idea for a robot who cooks food. The practicality of that idea, among others, struck one of the neuroscientists as significant. These kids aren’t all thinking about ways to become Superman. Some wanted to design things that would be useful immediately in their lives. Many of them haven’t learned to cook yet and yet they are going home to a place where both parents are working, no adult is there, but they’re hungry.

Incidentally, we focused on sixth graders again this time, as we have done in the past because we’ve learned from educators that by the time kids are in ninth grade, many of those who have a natural inclination towards science lose interest in it as a possible path if it’s not part of their family life or their culture. And we want to increase diversity in the field, so we want to reach these students before they decide against a career in neuroscience. 

Q: One vision for a potential Center for Neuroscience and Society at MIT is to break the work of the Center up into two-year project cycles. How has the planning you’ve done, and the tours you led, informed what you'd like to do if you had two years to focus on it? 

Jill Crittenden: I’d like to work with the museum to help kids who would go on tours like the ones we led at the McGovern understand the publication process for scientists. Publication is essential to this field. It’s critical both for career advancement and for advancing civilization; b neuroscientists’ findings have to be communicated to be used in the world by designers, business people, policy experts, and so on. If you don’t understand the publication process, you won’t succeed in the field. 

To help kids understand the process, I’d recruit the most engaged sixth graders we meet during similar tours to work with our neuroscientists to produce papers for Frontiers for Young Minds—a journal that has scientists re-write their work for young people, using feedback from young people. The journal actually has young people review the papers that are submitted; the students then provide feedback for the scientists about what makes sense and what doesn’t. Early exposure to a process like that is important for a budding neuroscientist. So that collaboration is something I would want to see come out of a two-year cycle. 

Having the ELSI component be a designated part of any discussion when we give tours would also be an important addition. 

I’d also like to work with the museum and ELSI scholars to engage with young people about what MIT research might be most relevant to the mental health care crisis. AI might be part of that. Or brain scans that provide data about how people do during social interactions. The statistics on young people experiencing mental health crises are shocking, and it would be interesting to tap into the concerns and experiences of young people more, to see how neuroscience could help them. 

Q: What you’re saying about mental health brings to mind something that the Perkins School’s Jessie Cronan mentioned. She’d like to work with a potential MIT Museum Dana Center to develop virtual reality booths that would help people understand how people with a set of visual impairments known as CVI experience the world. [LINK TO HER Q& A] Do you think it would be worthwhile to develop similar virtual reality booths related to mental illness, so that people could get a feel for what it is like to live with depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and so on? 

Jill Crittenden: That’s an interesting point. A friend of mine works at a mental health hospital where the people in every department, even the insurance department, are required to spend a day wearing headphones, with voices talking to them through the headphones, so they get a sense of what it must be like for schizophrenic people. 

That said, it might be hard to do mental health booths in an ethical way. The neuroscientists and ELSI scholars would have to work together to make a powerful experience that would be at the same time sensitive to the concerns of people with mental illness. We’d have to be careful to respect how people with mental illness feel about being represented.

Q: Any final thoughts? 

Jill Crittenden: It would be wonderful to have a Dana Center at MIT. We don’t have an organized option like this for our neuroscientists right now. Many of them have done public engagement on their own, but it would be so much nicer to have a center where they could learn how to do it really well—and learn how to get something out of communicating with the public about their work; how to get feedback from the public. People can provide feedback that you just don’t think about when you’re buried in your data. 

Q: Yes, I’ve noticed that understanding other people’s thoughts has been a theme of this effort, not just in terms of the various neuroscientific studies and projects that look at people’s brains but also in the sense that the various groups who have been involved—the neuroscientists, the public engagement specialists, the ELSI scholars, the public—have tried to understand the ideas and thinking of people with whom they don’t usually interact. 

Jill Crittenden: That’s really interesting. The center would be a practical way to help people “read” each other’s minds—by having people who don’t normally talk to each other talk to each other! 

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