Brain science at the airport

Guest blogger Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D., research associate professor and director of education outreach at the University of Washington’s department of bioengineering, is the creator
Neuroscience for Kids, a Web site
for all students and teachers who would like to learn about the brain and
nervous system. Dr. Chudler is very active during Brain Awareness Week, including arranging classroom visits and organizing open house brain fairs at the university.

Several weeks ago I traveled to California to give some presentations to teachers interested in neuroscience and education. In addition to giving the keynote lecture, I provided some workshops that provided the teachers with ideas for hands-on neuroscience activities they could use in their classrooms. 

EricChudlerWSmall  When I travel by air, I usually take carry-on luggage only. This requires that I pack lightly and bring only the essentials. The trip to California required careful planning because in addition to clothing, I had to bring materials and supplies for the workshops. Because my trip was fairly brief, most of my carry-on bag contained these supplies. 

As I packed my bag with cards, brain and neuron models, visual illusions, and spinning tops (Benham disks), I started to worry. I knew that airport security was getting very strict about screening passengers and some of the materials in my bag were very unusual. I hoped that I would not have any problems when it came time for me to board my flight. 

Waiting in the security line for my flight, I tried to remember everything I had packed just in case I was asked questions. As my bag traveled on the conveyer belt into the X-ray machine, I thought everything would be fine. I watched my bag disappear into the machine and walked through the metal detector. Suddenly, the X-ray machine stopped, lights started flashing and an alarm sounded. 

“Excuse me, sir. Is this your bag?,” asked a TSA agent. I replied that it was my bag. The agent asked me to step to the side and asked if there was anything dangerous in my luggage. I said that there was nothing dangerous in the bag. The agent then asked if she could open the bag and look inside. “Of course, please do,” I replied. 

I was then placed in the “rectangle of shame,” the glass box in the airport security area where they search people who set off the metal detectors. As I waited in the rectangle of shame, the TSA agent slowly opened my bag. The first item she removed was my life-size plastic brain model. She held the brain model high in the air and called to me, “What’s this?” I called back, “It’s a brain.” That drew some interesting stares from other passengers around me. 

The TSA agent suggested that we go through the bag together so I exited the rectangle of shame and went over to the counter with my bag. I explained who I was and where I was going. The TSA agent was still interested in what I was carrying. She even brought the brain model over to her fellow agents to show them. “Look,” she said, “Have you ever seen one of these?” 

The next item out of my bag with my giant rope neuron model. This really caught the attention of the agent. “What are you planning to do with this 30 foot rope?”, she asked. She was still a bit suspicious of me. I explained that the rope was part of a nerve cell model. The rope represents the axon of a nerve cell. The axon takes messages away from the neuron’s cell body. I started to give a little mini-lecture about how nerve cells use electrical and chemical signals to communicate with each other. Two other TSA agents came over to listen. 

The TSA agent then removed a small green box from my bag. “Is it safe to open?,” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. When the agent opened the box, she had a puzzled look on her face. “What is this?,” she asked. I explained that she was looking at the brains of several small animals encased in plastic. I pointed to the smooth cerebral cortex on most of the small brains and compared it to the folded cortex on the plastic human brain model. My airport neuroscience class continued, “Why do you think the human brain has all of these folds on the cortex?”, I asked. One agent answered correctly, “To get more brain inside your skull!” 

As our discussion continued, I got a bit anxious because I wanted to get to my gate and did not want to miss my plane to California. Finally, after digging through more items in my bag, the TSA agent said, “I think we found the problem.” She pulled out a set of neuron models that I had made from wire. Apparently the wires caught the attention of the TSA agent watching the X-ray machine. I explained that the different wires represented dendrites, the cell body, axon and terminal of a nerve cell. 

My explanations seemed to satisfy everyone. As I re-packed my bag and headed off to my gate, the TSA agent called after me, “You have to come back again and teach us some more!” I am sure I will be back at the airport, but to avoid any delays in the future, I’ll leave my wire neuron models at home.

Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D.

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