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Small Brains, Big Ideas: Inspiring Latin American Scientists
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Small Brains, Big Ideas: Inspiring Latin American Scientists

As graduate students, it can be tempting to fall into the role of “seen and not heard”, believing that our larger contribution to science will have to wait until our name has a more commanding title to it. But two entrepreneurial scientists prove that with initiative, vision and determination, changing the face of science is possible at any time.

Today marks the kick-off of the second annual Small Brains, Big Ideas (SBBI) conference in Santiago, Chile. The brainchild of Yuly Fuentes-Medel and Jennifer Pirri, SBBI provides a crash course in invertebrate research for students across Latin America. Fuentes-Medel and Pirri recognized that–unlike vertebrate research–invertebrate models’ low-cost and easy setup make them ideal systems for blossoming scientific communities around the world. Theirs is an inspirational tale of identifying a need in an enthusiastic population of scientists and devising a program to fundamentally affect the future generation of scientists in the region.We hope their success will inspire others to pursue their dreams of impacting science in their own way. We recently sat down with the co-founders to discuss how they transformed SBBI from an idea with an overwhelming to-do list into a successful conference with an attendee wait list.


BenchFly: Clearly, you weren’t sitting around lab one day saying to yourself “I need more work”… So explain where the idea for Small Brains, Big Ideas came from and what compelled you to actually takes steps to make it happen?

Yuly:  I was educated in Latin America with very few resources but an overwhelming abundance of good ideas. When I was doing my PhD in Worcester, MA, I realized that we were sitting on a great opportunity to make a difference.  I went to a conference where I met Professor Dr. Jimena Sierralta who is now a co-organizing the course from Chile. Then we recruited Dr. John Ewer, who had recently moved to Chile and had the experience of working with model organisms in both the USA and Chile as a Principal Investigator. Also, the Neurobiology Department is a unique collaborative group of people focused on invertebrate biology who believe that using invertebrates in biomedical research is not the alternative, but the solution. I believe we can catalyze scientific progress in creative ways; Small Brains, Big Ideas was a perfect way to use my scientific mind. Of course, these projects are always a team effort and we never would have been able to move forward without the strong support of Jimena Sierralta, John Ewer, the Neurobiology department and graduate school of UMass.

Jenn:  I have always been really passionate about scientific outreach and education.  I think spreading the word about what we do and providing opportunities for others to grow as scientists is one of the most important way we can give back to the community. So, when Yuly came to me and asked if I wanted to help with the project, I was excited to join.

For other students, postdocs, or faculty members who are sitting on a great idea for a conference/meeting/symposium but don’t know what to do next — what are the first five steps they should take?

Step 1:  Identify and match need with opportunity

Step 2:  Don’t be afraid to go public.  The more you talk about your idea, the more exited people get.

Step 3:  Have a vision.  This will get organizers, faculty and students committed to participate.

Step 4: Research potential sponsors and be creative about funding.

Step 5:  Make motivating the participants the motor of your project.

Also, as a side note, you never know what a beautiful destination can do to motivate people. In our case, Chile, is a great place to share passion about science.

What were the top three challenges that you ran into that others should avoid, or at least be aware of?

  1. International destinations can present a challenge.  It can be difficult to send biological samples and coordinate everyone’s documents for travel.
  2. Funding can be difficult to secure.  You need to make sure you have a good plan to pitch your project and also have methods in place to handle the money once you get it.
  3. Communication is key.  It can be difficult to coordinate so many people, so make sure you establish open lines of communication early and touch base often.

After a successful first year, how do you keep the momentum and excitement going until the next conference?

We evaluated the first conference and took the comments of participants seriously.

We have developed a website–www.smallbrains.org–to post pictures and videos of the course and we have recently started using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to keep people updated and spread the word on the progress of the project.  We are constantly recruiting people to join the project and are discussing opportunities to make things better.   The key is to stay vocal about your project and the excitement will just take off.

What is your long-term vision for SBBI and what do you hope students take away from it?

Sometimes people think money is the most essential component to do good science, however without passion or exciting ideas science does not progress to investment. The most important component for doing good science is found within.  We want to develop a strong global network of scientists and help produce the future leaders of science in Latin America.


Jennifer Pirri, GSBS student

Jennifer joined the Neurobiology Department of UMass Medical School as a graduate student in laboratory of Dr. Mark Alkema in 2005.  Her thesis research is focused on how the nervous system produces coordinated behaviors in the nematode, C. elegans.  During her time as a graduate student, Jennifer, was the recipient of the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Curriculum Achievement, and the Student Award for Outstanding Mentoring.  She also became an active participant in the National Lab Day Network, providing STEM outreach education to middle and high schools in Massachusetts.  She will complete her PhD thesis work in December of 2012.


Yuly Fuentes-Medel,  Ph.D.

Yuly is presently doing a fellowship in economics at the Sloan School of Management at MIT studying the economics of life science innovation.  She completed her Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences at UMass Medical School in Worcester, MA and developed her thesis work in a collaboration project between Dr. Vivian Budnik and Dr. Marc Freeman within the Neurobiology Department there. Her research area focused on how glial cells contribute to the formation and growth of synapses at the Drosophila NMJ. She has a biochemistry undergraduate degree from University of Concepcion, Chile. Yuly is an active member of women entrepreneurs in science and technology (WEST). She has a passion for science, innovation and self-development.


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