Faculty Feature: Dr. Bill Griesar

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Dr. Bill Griesar is a senior instructor in the psychology department. In addition to his work at Portland State, he teaches for the Behavioral Neuroscience department at OHSU and is the co-founder and Neuroscience Coordinator for the nonprofit NW Noggin. Their organization brings together scientists, artists and students of all ages to learn from each other, get excited about science and art, and share area educational resources. He is passionate about outreach and involving students beyond what they are taught in the classroom. 

He has taught at many institutions over the region, including Oregon Health & Science University, Washington State University, and Clark College. “PSU is my favorite community by far. This school has a big city feel with lots of people doing all sorts of things. There is a strong commitment to service at PSU and we learn from our neighbors.”

Dr. Griesar teaches PSY 410 Neuroscience Outreach, PSY 200 Psychology as Natural Science, PSY 347 Perception, PSY 450 Psychopharmacology, PSY 451 Introduction to Neurophysiological Psychology, and PSY 452 Advanced Neurophysiological Psychology.

How did you decide to start NW Noggin?

I had a colleague who was an adjunct artist named Jeff Leake. In the summertime, we were thinking ‘what to do with our kids?’ We were looking at programs through the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) but they were so expensive. So we decided to create a summer program ourselves! With the help of Portland State students and artists, we created a free four-week summer education program all about the brain and behavior at Sabin K-8, a Portland Public School. It was entirely volunteer work. 30 kids came every day. We did this program at more and more schools every year. Almost 50,000 K-12 kids and community members went through these outreach programs. We formed a real community. We even got invited to the Society of Neuroscience.

We kept growing. The Obama Administration invited us to come visit in 2016. They were having a frontiers conference for innovators. We even got to meet President Obama. It was awesome and he told us he “loved” our pipe cleaner neurons. We were focused on arts integration in STEM. Our organization was included because it was an interdisciplinary, community-based approach. They brought in a lot of other groups, especially those who are challenging institutional structures.

We tell students they have amazing potential. Go places, don’t wait for institutions. Portland State is less tightly controlled so students should get out there and do things! We live in a remarkably diverse and fascinating community.

How do you encourage your students?

I try to be present and offer lots of opportunities outside the classroom. I like bringing in experiences that are relevant from our local community. It’s important to listen to other people, share experiences and share perspectives. 

Education should focus more on outreach. It expands your own understanding of the communities you are engaged with in the classroom. I like to learn what is happening in the world and see connections to what we are learning in school. Students find a lot of value in these things.

What should a student do if they want to study neuroscience?

They should join a neuroscience club, or even better, work with your school to develop a neuroscience minor! Get involved in organizations. Look at opportunities to volunteer at OHSU and hospitals. Our NW Noggin website has lots of material about neuroscience. We take the questions that students ask and respond on our blog. We have links to all institutions we partner with locally. You can check out and learn more.

At Portland State, you can study psychology with a focus path on neuropsychology and neuroscience. Students can take two-week teaching modules where grad students join the class. Our students get to hear what kind of opportunities are available at OHSU. This is an opportunity for students to develop really great connections. 

PSU is very close to offering an interdisciplinary neuroscience minor, which will bring in students who are curious about neuroscience. I’ve co-taught with neuroscientists and artists. Everyone has brains and we are curious about understanding brains. It is useful to have a collaboration to get deeper insights about how brains work. Neuroscience is one of the best fields for acquiring universal insights.

A lot of neuroscientists are into art. And a lot of artists want to pursue the neuroscience track. It’s an overlap of interesting thinkers. They may make more remarkable discoveries and push things in a slightly different way. 

How does NW Noggin engage with the community?

One of our signature projects is to have students make brain cells out of pipe cleaners. But during the pandemic, we realized it may be hard for people to acquire materials, so we changed the project to making brain cells out of any objects you find. People made neurons all over the world. Some kids even made a neuron out of a splat of bird poop! Others made a neuron out of fishing material. There were so many creative, really cool examples. People loved putting their own ideas into this project, and loved learning about their brains. This is why cross-disciplinary neuroscience is important. 

If people would like to get involved in outreach, go to nwnoggin.org. Get involved! Come join us!