NYC Brain Bee a Big Success

The New York City Regional Brain Bee, for the first time, was more than just a neuroscience quiz for high school students. The competition was the main purpose, of course, and Staten Island Technical High School’s Danling Chen beat 45 other competitors to claim the top prize: $500 and a trip to the University of Maryland for the National Brain Bee.

But there was also a lecture from Charles Zuker, Ph.D., and a Brain Fair for the students and other Bee attendees. All of this took place at Alfred Lerner Hall on Columbia University’s campus. Zooker’s presentation, aided by entertaining and informative PowerPoint slides, focused on two of the five senses: sight and taste. To illustrate sight, he showed video clips of a bat tracking a moth in pitch dark. I learned that dogs do in fact see certain colors (I had always been told they only see in black and white). For the most point, canines’ interpretation of colors is duller than ours. As Zuker noted, this is another example of how color is not in the real world but in our minds, and is open to interpretation. I think this is what the movie Pleasantville was about. 

One of Zuker’s videos about taste showed a mouse getting rewarded with a tasty liquid and therefore associating a particular stimulus with the reward. Suddenly the liquid was tainted with a foul ingredient, and the mouse’s reaction—closing its eyes, turning away in disgust—drew a sympathetic “Awww” from the audience. Should that same mouse appear in their homes, I’m guessing they’d have a different reaction.

Zuker is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and according to his HHMI bio, he attended college at 16 and started graduate school at MIT at 20 (he's now in his 50's). I’m 25 and consider successful preparation of EZ Mac an accomplishment.

Zuker’s presentation was followed by the Bee itself. This was my third Brain Bee and I am always amazed by the knowledge of the participants. These kids really know their stuff. When nearly all of them correctly answered “100 billion” for the approximate number of nerve cells in the human brain, the Bee’s first question, I knew they were using every last one of them. In addition to our coverage, The New York Times also had a reporter at the event.

After the winners were determined, students and their supporters were encouraged to step into the hallway for a Brain Fair. Attendees could see, but not touch, a human brain. (One unnamed Dana employee inadvertently touched the brain and was ordered to wash his hands immediately.) There were some student experiments on display as well, and some posters with titles difficult to read, yet alone understand. There were distortion goggles, which can be used to show the plasticity of the brain—toss a bean bag to the left of your intended target enough times and your brain will correct itself and aim a few feet to the right.

The pre- and post-Bee events really made for a wonderful afternoon of neuroscience. If you missed this year’s event, be sure to stop by next year to see if a Staten Island Tech student wins for the third straight year!

–Andrew Kahn

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