ComSciCon-Michigan alum Ellen Brennan knows to just say “Yes, and…” to scientific discovery

April 20, 2020
Ellen Brennan presents her poster at the AAAS meeting
Ellen Brennan presents her poster at the AAAS meeting in February 2020.

by Donna McDermott

**Editor's note: This post is part of a series highlighting members of the ComSciCon community who recently attended the AAAS Annual Meeting, which took place from February 13-16, 2020 in Seattle, WA.

Ellen Brennan spent five months poking brain cells with a tiny wire, yet all she had to show for it was a bunch of weird data. “I went through my notebook,” she says, “to find anything worth talking about.” But instead of finding the typical signals of electrical communication between brain cells, Ellen found, “so many question marks.” 

Ellen’s PhD advisor Dr. Omar Ahmed had a different take. “He came up with an idea that I never considered,” she says, “that we had just discovered a new type of neuron.”

That new type of brain cell is now called the low rheobase neuron: it’s small, essential, common, and no one knew how it worked until Ellen Brennan found it. Ellen presented her research on the low rheobase neuron at the 2020 AAAS meeting and won the student e-poster competition in the ‘Brain and Behavior’ category for her work.

Ellen’s adventure to and from the low rheobase neuron has shown her how vital science storytelling is to research. She first learned this lesson at ComSciCon- Michigan, which she both attended and organized. Through ComSciCon, Ellen transitioned from researching science to sharing stories of scientific discovery. Along the way, she’s found her voice, fought her inner critic, and embraced the beautiful struggle of scientific exploration.

Ellen is a fourth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the University of Michigan. Her PhD research on the low rheobase neuron shed light on how brains record their body’s sense of direction. Future researchers may use this insight to identify pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s patients. 

ComSciCon showed Ellen the power of telling engaging science stories. For example, in the Write-A-Thon, she wrote about a neuroscience lab technique. “I threw jokes in there and then it ended up being a weird history,” says Ellen. She realized that if an audience “can associate science with laughing a lot… they'll be more open to having someone teach them.”

Ellen also believes that scientists should be aware of the stories they tell themselves. She says that, as researchers, “we spin the stories that our data are telling us” in order to understand how data fits into a larger scientific picture. However, “sometimes people get stuck to those stories and so when they get contradictory data, they assume the design was wrong and not that the data is right.” In order to embrace discovery, Ellen advises that scientists should “let the data spin the story.”

Ellen calls this the ‘yes, and’ approach to research, a technique borrowed from improv where actors are expected to accept any absurd scenario that comes their way and then improvise the next step. Ellen sees strong connections between improv and science. After completing her PhD, Ellen aims to teach improv skills while working as a public information officer at a university or research institute.

But how can improv help scientists in these prestigious research labs? Ellen believes that another valuable lesson from improv is ‘silencing the inner critic.’ When scientists are faced with challenges, like, for example, the challenge of communicating with the public, “we hinder our own intellectual development for fear of looking silly in front of our peers. That's the inner critic in us.”

Ellen learned this lesson by embracing her own failures and growing stronger from them. After all, Ellen says, “I discovered this neuron by mistake. And that is how I tell the story.”


Donna McDermott headshotDonna McDermott is an ecology PhD candidate at Emory University in Dr. Berry Brosi’s lab. She researchers how bumble bees learn about flowers and how college students learn about ecology. Donna is enthusiastic about stories, science, and teaching at every level. She is a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

See also: Life Science