New York Students Prepare for Saturday’s Brain Bee

Think back to your high-school days: How did you spend your weekends? Did you debate neuroethics cases, learn about neural plasticity, or talk to scientists about the mating behaviors of African frogs?

For a group of motivated high-schoolers from New York City (and a few suburbs), this is exactly how they’ve spent two weekends this year to prepare for the NYC regional Brain Bee.

The Brain Bee is a competition for high-school students on neuroscience facts, and it occurs at the regional, national, and international levels. To help the New York participants prepare, Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach (a graduate-student volunteer group) partnered with the Dana Foundation to organize two weekend training sessions where volunteers taught the fundamentals of various areas in neuroscience. The participants learned about cellular processes used by neurons to communicate with each other, the neural basis of sleep, and changes in the brain that cause diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In addition to presentations, participants were shown real brains from various animals (including humans!) to help solidify their knowledge of neuroanatomy. This also fueled an educational discussion on the use of different animal models for research purposes.

While one goal of these sessions was to teach brain facts for the competition, it was also an excellent opportunity to teach the Brain Bee participants about the life of a scientist, and to provide an understanding deeper than book-learning by showing case studies and patient videos. All of the volunteers, who hailed from graduate programs at Columbia and NYU, were young scientists passionate about research. They held a panel discussion about college and graduate school for the participants, and encouraged them to ask questions. During this discussion, volunteers shared their research interests, described their own paths to graduate school, and gave advice about how to find a research job and apply to graduate school. It was clear from this panel that neuroscience can be approached from many academic backgrounds, and that undergraduate students do not need to major in neuroscience to become a neuroscientist!

To further expose the participants to life as a scientist, two graduate students led tours of their labs. In one lab, participants saw a living frog brain used to study vocal communication during mating. In the other, students were exposed to rooms filled with powerful lasers and cutting-edge microscope technology used to image neuronal circuitry in the rodent brain.

Even if these exceptional high school students become lawyers or businesspeople, we hope they will still use the knowledge taken from these training sessions. To drive home the societal implications of the neuroscience they learned, ethics discussions were led by members of a Columbia undergraduate neuroscience society. Participants discussed the recent prevalence of traumatic brain injury in athletes, and court systems that punish juvenile offenders as adults. The high schoolers’ new knowledge of the brain helped them sort through these ethical issues using informed scientific arguments. By the end of the training sessions, it was clear to us that these talented young people will make a significant impact in the future, neuroscientists or not.

We encourage you to watch the students compete in the Brain Bee on February 9th at Columbia University’s Lerner Hall Auditorium. See what they’ve learned and play along!

– Kara Marshall and Alexis Hill

Kara Marshall is a Ph.D. candidate in the Integrated Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences program at Columbia University, and studies sensory neuroscience. 

Alexis Hill is a Ph.D. candidate in the Neurobiology and Behavior program at Columbia University, and studies behavioral neuroscience.

Update: The New York City regional Brain Bee has been cancelled due to inclement weather.

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