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An Interview With ThinkSci Outreach Program

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Students discuss during the ThinkSci workshop at Vanier College on November 3, 2023.

On behalf of the Daily, I had the opportunity to interview Phoenix Plessas-Azurduy and Aidan Shoham Amizlev, McGill students and cofounders of ThinkSci; and Chloe, a ThinkSci outreach mentor and U0 Biology student at McGill. ThinkSci is a non-profit student-run organization which runs neuroscience workshops in Canadian high schools and CEGEPs. Their goal is to increase access to STEM opportunities for underprivileged youth, and inspire students to pursue careers in science.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Andrei Li for The McGill Daily (MD): Tell me a bit about yourselves. How did you become interested in neurophysiology and education?

Phoenix and Aidan (P&A): Our names are Phoenix and Aidan and we are the co-founders of the ThinkSci Outreach Program. We became interested in neurophysiology as I [Phoenix] study physiology and Aidan studies biochemistry. Aidan and I met when we took our first Intro to Physiology course together three years ago.

I’d say we both geeked out over neurophysiology together through that course and then both took courses throughout our degrees to learn more about it and the applications of neuroscience. We’ve both taught in different settings, I [Phoenix] personally have varied experiences from coaching to teaching. Pedagogy has just been something I’ve always loved, been interested in, and studied.

MD: How did you come up with the idea of the workshops?

P&A: In starting ThinkSci, our main mission was to empower youth from underrepresented groups to pursue undergraduate and graduate careers in physiology and STEM at large. When developing our workshops, we aimed to leverage our experiences on both sides of the coin, as both teachers and learners. We wanted them to be fun, engaging, and for students to leave the workshop feeling empowered, that they could see themselves doing that same work in the future! In our workshops, we use the SpikerBox: a bioamplifier and interactive learning tool to visualize neurological signals on your phone and laptop. This tool was developed with the goal of making learning about neuroscience more accessible to a younger demographic of students, since often, the cost of high-level neurological tools limits accessibility.

Aidan and I reflected on the lack of accessibility in our former high schools when it came to innovative tools used to engage students in science. This is when we decided to start ThinkSci: to introduce the Spikerbox in high schools to provide the opportunity to learn about neuroscience to a more diverse set of students.

MD: Could you give me a rundown of what the average workshop day looks like?

P&A: The workshop is designed for a group of roughly 40 students. The facilitators act as “ER doctors” presenting three patient cases and ask participants to study each patient’s condition. Students are expected to step into the shoes of neurophysiologists: to use the tools found at their stations to design experiments, make hypotheses, and draw conclusions. Students get to work in groups of six, with mentors available for guidance throughout the workshop.

In the workshop, the main tool we provide students is the SpikerBox. As an example, one of the patients has hypoxia – lack of oxygen – caused by a blood clot. Students then design an experiment to visualize how the brain sends signals to the rest of the body in hypoxic versus normal conditions.
The tissues used in the workshop are crickets and cockroaches. In the workshop, we walk students through all steps of preparation: cockroach anesthesia, leg preparation, along with a discussion on the ethics of using live tissue for science.

We end with a final discussion where we share knowledge and experience on the lack of representation amongst certain communities in STEM. Students are encouraged to share their first-hand experiences with the facilitators and outreach mentors. Not only do we offer students the possibility to see themselves becoming neurophysiologists in the future, we also validate their current and past experiences in confronting inequality, lack of accessibility, and underrepresentation by providing a safe space for them to share. We hope their experience in our workshop provides them with the tools and resources necessary to advocate for themselves throughout their journey and build a community of support.

MD: What was the most challenging part of starting ThinkSci?

P: Managing the many hats we had on. From recruiting, to teaching, to funding, I would say all of our combined skills are being put to use. As two undergraduate students, it was definitely an endeavour to try to convince organizations and institutions to fund our initiative with little to no proof anything would come of it. But with just the right amount of will and some really awesome investors, anything is possible. We are so grateful to be funded by both the Canadian Association of Neuroscience and the Quebec Bio-Imaging Network.

MD: What has been the most rewarding part?

P: The most rewarding part has to be the workshops themselves. Seeing and interacting with young scientists, seeing the lightbulb go off when they learn something new and guiding them through problem-solving in the workshop.

Chloe (C): Getting to see the four or five students that stayed back after the presentation to ask questions and just talk to us about our own projects was extremely rewarding, since we could see that they really found an interest in neurophysiology.

MD: How do you hope to develop ThinkSci in the future?

P&A: In ThinkSci’s first year, we’re really focused on creating a knowledge-sharing hub of individuals from all walks of life, at all stages in their careers, passionate about neurophysiology, pedagogy and equitable access in STEM. Currently, we operate in Montreal and Ottawa. In the next few years, we hope to reach even more youth.

We hope to expand our reach to more schools and institutions in both cities, and to more locations across the country, including Indigenous and remote communities. I have faith in the awesome team we have this year: we’re constantly adapting our initiatives to the needs of the communities we work with.

MD: What advice would you give to youth who want to go into the health sciences and/or STEM?

P: Never forget why you’re pursuing your goals. Taking a pause to reflect on the “why” or “how” has always helped me refocus. It was important for me, as a first step to acknowledge the obstacles I faced through my journey. But it’s even more important to remind myself why I aspire to do what I aim to, as this gives me the strength to keep pushing.

Allow yourself to let these goals change and evolve over time. Don’t see this as “giving up,” but rather an opportunity for growth.

C: I’ve found a lot of more experienced students here to emulate as I go through university. Thinking about what they would do in certain situations or how they would approach certain opportunities has really helped me achieve my goals. I believe ThinkSci does this for a lot of students as well, since the organization really works to connect mentors and their students on a personal level. Students can really see themselves in their mentors.

To learn more about ThinkSci, and their programs you can follow their Instagram at @thinkscioutreach, and learn more about their work at