UAA’s Rachael Hannah to present Planetarium’s ‘Neurotours’

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Rachael Hannah, assistant professor of UAA’s Department of Biological Sciences, studied marine biology, molecular biology and cerebral vasculature before finally becoming a teacher. Photo credit: Jay Guzman

Rachael Hannah, an assistant professor in UAA’s Department of Biological Sciences, has a favorite organ: the brain.

This summer, Hannah will be able to share her fascination with it by hosting a presentation called “Neurotours” at the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater. In this immersive show, she will guide viewers through a variety of real images and visuals, including MRI and CT scans, providing a glimpse into the human brain. The tour involves examining many components of the organ from the skull down to individual neurons.

For Hannah, being able to do this presentation is an exciting new feat in the three years she has been with UAA. Caroline Wilson conducted the “Neurotours” in the past, but now that she is no longer with the University, Hannah will be the one to step up to the plate.

“I’m excited to be able to talk about my favorite organ, the brain. And I love having the conversation with people with the questions that they have,” Hannah said. “They get to pick my brain for certain things that I found interesting and we also get to share what is currently happening in the world of neuroscience. And that’s a lot of fun.”

Omega Smith manages the Planetarium and is looking forward to attending “Neurotours” and learning from Hannah. She says that the combination of a live presenter with an engaging visual tour is unique to the theater.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn about the subject that the movie is on and then you can bring in a local scientist who’s actually doing research or they have done research in the past. So you have that live element where the show is visually stunning and really captures you and you want to learn more,” Smith said. “It’s a huge door opening for someone who wants to get more involved in that field or has more questions.”

Despite her current work with teaching and participating in various research projects, Hannah didn’t always know she wanted to study the brain and cerebral vasculature.

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She studied marine biology and molecular biology in Florida for her undergraduate degree but felt that it wasn’t quite right.

“I didn’t believe that was my thing because biology is so huge. And so I actually spent the next ten years, before I went back to grad school, working in a bunch of different types of labs,” Hannah said.

Hannah did her graduate and post baccalaureate work at the University of Vermont studying cerebral vasculature and then decided to go into teaching.

“But what happened in early 2010… I realized I could help more people by learning how to teach and focusing on teaching… And it’s at the University of Maine that I learned how to teach undergraduates,” Hannah said. “So what drew me here, actually, to UAA is the scholarship of teaching and learning and the diversity of people here.”

One of the projects Hannah is currently working on involves students who are also invested in science. Savannah Green, a health sciences major, is studying turtles’ brains and blood vessels as part of research that she decided to take up after taking a class with Hannah last semester. She appreciates the hands-on work and says that it helps with the process of learning and understanding.

“I think it’s really interesting, especially when you’re looking at the blood vessels and the neurological system because those are the two systems that usually control the other parts of the body,” Green said. “Also, I just think neuroscience is really interesting because there’s so little that we know about it and it has such a huge impact on our health.”

Green hopes that their work will pay off and, as she makes her way to graduate school, contribute to the science community.

Hannah says that for her if there were a specific milestone she would want to see, it would be the discovery of a treatment for strokes and other traumatic brain injuries. She says that there aren’t many tools or resources and it has been this way since she began stroke research in 2000.

“Right now, the treatment for a stroke is only available for thirty percent of people that present with a stroke, and in that, it’s only available if they present within the first three hours of the stroke… I mean, we just don’t know. We don’t have the tools by which to help these people recover from this kind of event,” Hannah said.

With “Neurotours” and her research, Hannah hopes to educate others and share her knowledge to further scientific progress. One of her favorite parts about what she does is being one of the first and few to look at certain data, and now she has another opportunity to give others a glimpse into the mind-blowing world of neuroscience.

“This organ that we have in all our heads is very, very complex,” Hannah said. “It’s really neat and I really think that that’s a really interesting idea that we have something that’s so similar in each and every one of us but we use it in slightly different ways to be our own person.”

“Neurotours” will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, July 28 in the UAA Planetarium, which is located in the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building. Tickets can be purchased at the Student Union Box Office or online through the Planetarium’s website, which contains more information regarding membership and other showings.