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Kafui Dzirasa Engages the Public in Shaping Brain Technologies and Speaks About Racism in STEM

Leshner Fellow Kafui Dzirasa giving 2016 TEDMED talk on using electrical engineering to treat mental illness.
Leshner Fellow Kafui Dzirasa giving 2016 TEDMED talk on using electrical engineering to treat mental illness.
Photo credit: TEDMED

Kafui Dzirasa has been working hard to make the case for public engagement to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where, as a member of the advisory committee for the Brain Initiative 2.0, he is creating platforms for “scaled-up” engagement efforts to drive more ethical and responsible brain-computer interactions. Dzirasa, who holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University and a 2019-20 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow. As he concluded in his Wired article from June 2019, “It is in humanity's hands to decide how far we will extend the boundaries of our species.”

The NIH Brain Initiative seeks to understand how electrical engineering can be used to treat mental illness. Dzirasa wants the public to explore potential concerns such as whether brain technologies could become a tool of governmental control, or whether people might become addicted to electrical devices that make them feel happy. He does extensive individual engagement on this and other topics, but he also wants to use his voice to support these much bigger efforts. “My goal for public engagement is not to sell a particular point of view – it’s to say that in a democracy, people need to be part of these decisions and discussions,” Dzirasa says.  

Kafui Dzirasa speaks to a group of AAAS Mass Media Fellows conducting interviews during the 2019-2020 AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellows orientation week.
Dzirasa being interviewed by AAAS Mass Media Fellows during their June 2019 orientations.

The vision outlined for the second half of the NIH Brain Initiative includes several major public engagement projects. Dzirasa helped shape the ideas for these during his Leshner fellowship year: a series of country-wide discussion forums in libraries, museums and other public spaces, and several phases of a national youth education project designed to promote team science, transdisciplinary learning, and neuroethics. Dzirasa says that because these projects are now written into the vision for the Brain Initiative, it will be much easier to advance them.

Part of how Dzirasa made the case for significant investment in this type of work is by referencing “one of the great public engagement campaigns our country ever did” -- the space race. Dzirasa points out that the space race inspired a whole new generation of engineers and scientists. “The public’s imagination hasn’t been sufficiently engaged [today]. I want to bring about culture changes in science using this initiative as the framework.”   

Dzirasa has increased his own engagement within the media over the past few months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the greater national attention focused on structural racism. He first wrote an op-ed in The Hill on the actions needed to support young scientists and their mental health during the pandemic, then a public statement in Cell (and accompanying video on Twitter which was viewed 140,000 times within a few weeks) on the racism he and his colleagues face and the personal toll it takes. 

Kafui Dzirasa posted this personal statement on Twitter.

He published another op-ed in The Hill on why inclusion in the scientific enterprise is critical to its success, and an op-ed in the Journal of Higher Ed with several other Leshner fellows on creating equitable learning environments for young trainees.

Dzirasa says the AAAS Leshner Fellowship training was instrumental in developing the skills for writing these op-eds, and he has now seen how powerful they can be. “I have said all of these things many times in committee meetings, but there are only so many rooms I can be in. These outlets really expanded that reach. Twitter puts you in all those rooms.” Many of his colleagues have been reaching out to get his input in addressing the issues he is raising. It’s made him busier than ever (and he was always busy), but he is glad to see people responding and bringing him into these conversations.

Recently he was also interviewed on podcasts about racism in medicine and the need for shared empathy. In the coming year he will be part of a documentary film on mental health and the effects of multigenerational racism. He gave a TEDMED talk on using electrical engineering to treat mental illness in 2016, and in his role as a member of the editorial board, he helped advance the issue of neuroethics and its intersection with the legal system. Reflecting on all this, Dzirasa concludes: “My basic theme for all of this engagement is: let’s value other human beings.” 

 The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.