Editor’s Note: Greg Gage is a globe-trekking neuroscientist, engineer, teacher and entrepreneur. He’s the co-founder of Backyard Brains, a Michigan-based company that wants to revolutionize how science is taught by putting neuroscience in the hands of young people. Watch Greg Gage’s full 30-minute profile this Sunday at 2 P.M. ET. on CNN’s “The Next List.”
Why he matters: Gage has come up with an innovative way to inspire future generations in neuroscience. As the co-creator of Backyard Brains, Gage created the “SpikerBox,”a small DIY kit that helps young people understand the electrical impulses that control the nervous system. He brings cool hands-on experiments to schools so students can see and hear brain signals, or “spikes” from the living neurons of insects like cockroaches.
Gage is passionate about coming up with ways to change neuroscience education, because, he says “when it comes to the brain, we’re in the dark ages. One out five of us will be diagnosed with a brain disorder that still has no cures. By getting more people involved … we can inspire those interested to become neuroscientists, and perhaps cure brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
Why he cares: The inspiration for Gage’s work as an educator came from a realization that the advanced equipment he used as a PhD student could be made at home for a fraction of the price, in less than a day.
“Our equipment that we were using cost $40,000,” he said. “We set off on a self-imposed engineering challenge to see if we could replicate our expensive lab equipment with something affordable by consumers.”
Gage ended up with the $100 “SpikerBox. It can be used with a smartphone, iPad or computer to monitor brain activity in real time. After a few minutes, amateurs can begin to understand the basic principles of how neurons encode information, and how remarkable the brain can be.
Why he’s passionate about keeping the biz in Michigan: Backyard Brains is run out of a community “hacker space,” a sort of open community lab, in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gage designed most of his original gear in his living room, but a small grant from the University of Michigan enabled him to move the operation into the hacker space a couple years ago.
“When we started Backyard Brains, it was a really down time for Michigan. All the automotive industry was in bankruptcy. And so, we’ve kept our workspace, all of the development, and engineering here. We found suppliers that were doing PCB boards for the automotive industry, that were down on work, and we had them building our Spikerboxes for us. We try to keep everything within the state of Michigan.”
Why he brings neuroscience to Detroit schools: Gage is passionate about giving back to young people. He teaches mostly at inner- city schools in Detroit and has brought Backyard Brains experiments to more than 100 high schools in Michigan. “The education system has been under a bit of attack lately. I see Detroit in the next 10 to 15 years really rebounding and I think it’s going to start from education. I’d like to mentor and encourage students to study the brain, and to go on and become neuroscientists.”
A passion for science may be in his genes: Gage inspired his 13-year-old nephew Ben Robbins to teach neuroscience. After Gage gave a lesson to Ben’s fifth-grade class, the youth decided he’d like to teach kids how the brain works. He now gives class lectures at school, and last year gave a presentation in front of thousands of people at the Society of Neuroscience.
Where you may have seen his experiments: A video of Gage explaining how neurons fire went viral on YouTube, where it has more than 2.1 million views. The Backyard Brains team triggered a squid’s color-shifting membrane with electrical currents generated by Cypress Hills’s 1993 crossover hit, “Insane in the Brain.”
Words of wisdom: “I think the goal of innovation is having the patience to try different things. When we bring in undergrads that are trying to learn how to do science for the first time, they don’t have the patience to go through the headaches, the walls. If it doesn’t work, they move on to something else. And you have to be careful enough to observe what’s happening even in failure. It could mean that there’s something else there we just can’t explain yet. Every once in awhile we get lucky as scientists and something happens. Unexpected results are the best thing you can get in science.”
What’s next? Last year Gage received a fellowship from a Latin American program called “Startup Chile.” They’ve enlisted him and his Backyard Brains partner Tim Marzullo to bring their low cost neuroscience gear to high schools, universities, and research labs in South America.|
From neuroscience to politics? Gage says once all students have been introduced to neuroscience, and his “Spikerboxes” are in every high school in the country, he’d consider a career in politics. “I like the scientific way of thinking. You have to have data in order to make your claims. And I think that’s missing in politics. There is a shortage of scientists in Congress and I think that’s a shame.”
Something you might not know about him: As a graduate student Greg Gage learned to play the carillon, a musical instrument played by striking a keyboard with your fists and by pressing the keys of a pedal keyboard with your feet. Gage was good enough to regularly play the carillon in The University of Michigan bell tower. These days when he’s not holed up in his Michigan hacker space or working in Chile, he’s playing the piano, riding his Dutch bike around campus and cheering on the Detroit Tigers.