Brain Bee Study Sessions a Success

Our guest blogger is Florence Varodayan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University. Florence helped organize two study sessions in preparation for Saturday's New York City Regional Brain Bee Competition.

If a patient comes to a hospital ER complaining of general weakness and a “clumsy” right hand, what would you, the doctor, do? What tests would you perform to diagnose the patient?

This scenario was presented to high school students preparing for the NYC Regional Brain Bee by a Columbia University M.D./Ph.D. student. The ensuing discussion covered the topics of identifying different causes of movement disorders and interpreting the results of neurological tests. The final diagnosis, after an MRI scan, was multiple sclerosis.

The Brain Bee is an international competition that aims to inspire the next generation of neuroscientists by teaching them about the brain. The Dana Alliance has been running the NYC area competition since 2002, and this year decided to bring the Brain Bee to Columbia University by teaming up with two student groups: the undergraduate group, the Columbia Neuroscience Society; and the graduate student group, Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach. The 2012 NYC Regional Brain Bee will be held from 1-5 pm on Saturday February 4th, at Roone Arledge Auditorium, Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia University.

To help the participants prepare for the competition, Columbia undergraduate and graduate students hosted two workshops in January. At the first workshop, held on Columbia’s medical campus, neuroscience graduate students gave presentations on each of the key areas covered in the competition. The competitors learned things as varied as how optical illusions work, what happens when we sleep, and what approaches scientists are taking to model the brain. What made these presentations truly special is that the graduate students discussed material directly related to what they study in the lab. As a result, the presenters were delighted to answer the competitors’ numerous and often complex questions. In fact, several of the graduate students later commented to me on the passion and intelligence of the competitors. Several told me, “We weren’t that smart back when we were in high school!”

Two weeks later, the Brain Bee participants attended a second workshop at Columbia’s main campus to engage with neuroscience as a process that involves investigation, discussion, and often a lot of controversy. The competitors learned how to diagnose patients with neurological disorders and then viewed (and touched!) real human and animal brains. They also discussed the scientific and legal ramifications of several neuroethics case studies with Columbia undergraduate and graduate students.

In one scenario, students were presented with a case study modeled after the issue of whether Science & Nature should release all the details of the controversial H5N1 study, while risking the information landing in the hands of bioterrorists. Another case, about the potential use of memory-enhancing drugs in preparation for a test, was particularly contentious. Some students pointed out that if the goal of (illegally) using drugs such as Adderall is merely to improve concentration, using a substance that has similar effects, such as coffee, could be a viable (legal) alternative. The day ended on a high note with tours of some of Columbia’s neuroscience research laboratories.

Thank you to all the wonderful undergraduate and graduate student volunteers who organized and ran these workshop sessions. We are really excited to celebrate neuroscience next Saturday and wish all the Brain Bee competitors good luck!

–Florence Varodayan

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