No Brainer: Senior’s Capstone Project Helps Diversify Brain Week Rhode Island

Renee Gonthier combines her Biology, Psychology, and science communication skills to make neuroscience research more accessible to the general public.

By Melanie Thibeault
Senior Renee Gonthier outside of the MNS building

BRISTOL, R.I. – When Renee Gonthier began as a Biology major and Psychology minor at Roger Williams University, she was certain that medical school would be in her future. But as the senior, who also added a Chemistry major into the mix, pursued different hands-on learning and community-oriented opportunities at Roger, she found her niche: science communication and law.   

“The intersection of Biology and Psychology is really interesting,” said Gonthier, an Honors Program student from East Kingston, N.H., who is applying to law school. “As I grew as a student here at Roger, I realized I enjoyed the communicative aspect of science,” rather than working in a laboratory.  

This semester, as part of her Psychology capstone project, Gonthier is working with the nonprofit Brain Week Rhode Island, which hosts free hands-on events and educational programs aimed at making neuroscience-related work accessible to everyone. RWU is a sponsor of Brain Week, co-founded in 2016 by Victoria Heimer-McGinn, an assistant professor of Psychology at RWU.   

After taking neuroscience courses with Heimer-McGinn, Gonthier got connected with Brain Week. As part of her capstone, she’ll conduct a demographic survey of the attendees at Brain Week’s Brain Fair held in Pawtucket, R.I., on March 12. She’ll then compare that with the results from a demographic survey of attendees at a similar Brain Week event held at Brown University in 2019 to analyze the differences in diversity “to see if the strides we’ve taken this year to increase diversity have been effective,” she said.  

Gonthier is “the wind beneath the wings of Brain Week this year,” Heimer-McGinn said. “She has taken on more responsibility than adults who have volunteered with Brain Week and delivered it efficiently and with quality.”   

During an internship with Brain Week last fall, Gonthier created content for and ran the organization’s social media accounts, which allowed her to use her science communication skills. She also met staff from partner organizations, including the Rhode Island Department of Health, and learned about advocacy work, which has inspired her career path. “I chose to work with Brain Week to explore more community outreach,” she said.   

While at RWU, Gonthier has been an active member of the community, playing on the Women’s Field Hockey team and as a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, Brain Club, and the Pre-Health Club. 

She credits Roger with supporting her pursuit of interdisciplinary studies and with the university’s emphasis on giving back to the community, especially with the Feinstein Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement. “Roger does a good job of actively giving back to the community,” Gonthier said. “Being at Roger has given me an understanding of working to better the community. I’ve always been passionate about finding a way to give back.”  

In the future, she hopes to be able to give back to the community as a lawyer, and thanks a microbiology lab with Professor Avelina Espinosa for introducing her to the world of health law. In law school, she plans to concentrate in health law and/or intellectual property law and hopes to make a career out of assisting and advocating for biomedical companies.   

In Espinosa’s lab, “I thought it was interesting, learning about the FDA and drug laws and making sure these companies aren’t causing more harm than good,” Gonthier said. “That opened up doors to new career opportunities.”