New York Regional Brain Bee, Start to Finish

This post was written for us by Katie Shakman and Jess Jimenez, members of Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach (CUNO) and organizers of Columbia’s volunteer involvement in the Brain Bee.

On Saturday morning, Jan. 11, dozens of eager students focused on neuroscience Ph.D. candidate Anita Burgos as she led them through the complex process of neurodevelopment. Not a moment of boredom or resentment for being in another classroom on a Saturday—this year’s 2014 NYC Brain Bee competitors looked excited and a little nervous, anticipating the challenge ahead.

For the past three years, Columbia University graduate students and affiliated researchers have held two Saturday training sessions in January to prepare eager and ambitious high school students from the NYC area for the Brain Bee, a spelling-bee style competition testing knowledge about neuroscience and the brain.

Training included eight hours of challenging lecture material, a panel discussion with Columbia neuroscience graduate students on science careers, a game show-style quiz, and private tours into the world-renowned Columbia neuroscience laboratories of Dr. Raphael Yuste and Dr. Frances Champagne.

At each training session, students showed their dedication and brightness, giving answers to questions that knocked session leaders off their feet! How could a high school student possibly know the specific medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease and bipolar disorder? These students did—and they were hungry to learn more.

During the career panel, in which M.D./Ph.D. and Ph.D. students talked about what led them to neuroscience research, one high school student asked “Where do you get your passion from, to work so hard and pursue something so big?” Though they may not have recognized it in themselves yet, session leaders could see that passion was not lacking amongst these high school students. They were overflowing with it.

Then came the big event. Familiar faces from boroughs near and far began to appear in Alfred Lerner Hall, on Columbia University’s Morningside campus just after lunchtime on Saturday Feb. 1. One by one, they arrived at the NYC Regional Brain Bee Competition and sat down for a last look at their notes; some students had been waiting more than a year for their chance to compete since the blizzard cancelled the 2013 Bee.

Daphna Shohamy speaks the audience before the Brain Bee.

Daphna Shohamy speaks to the audience before the Brain Bee.

The event opened  with a welcome from Kathleen Roina of the Dana Alliance. Kathleen introduced Daphna Shohamy, Ph.D., of Columbia’s psychology department. Professor Shohamy described her work using human behavior and functional brain imaging to unravel the mysteries of how the brain learns and makes decisions. Her research has highlighted how different parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus and the striatum, contribute to different aspects of memory and decision-making, and how research into the workings of these brain regions could inform our understanding of disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Prof. Shohamy looked at the students and ended with, “May your hippocampi serve you well!”

As the contestants found their places at 24 long tables facing the audience, the judges took their seats facing the rows of tables. This year’s judging panel was made up of three neuroscience faculty: Clarissa Waites, Ph.D., Ai Yamamoto, Ph.D., and Ho Yu, Ph.D. Moderating the proceedings from the podium, neuroscience professor Michael Shadlen took his place and opened the competition by congratulating every participant for making it this far—the thing to really be proud of, he emphasized, is being here and participating in this competition.

The first question: “What is the name of the basic processing unit in the brain?” As the moderator called time, the students held up their answers, written on big cards. These brainiacs brought their best game this year, and it dazzled right out of the gate; when the scores were tallied after round one, all participants remained. After the first three rounds, only a handful of students had been eliminated.

Finally, nine rounds later, the Bee was down to the final five students. The finalists moved to the front of the room, and the sudden-elimination rules were explained: Students would acquire a red card for every wrong answer; three red cards meant elimination. Several questions in, two students reached their red-card limits, whittling the competition to three finalists.

The air was electric in Lerner Auditorium as each question was read. Finally, without knowing it, Dr. Shadlen read the final question—only Hetince Zhao had the correct answer. Two students were eliminated, Kathleen announced, and we had our NYC Regional Brain Bee Champion!  The audience broke into its loudest applause yet, for Hetince and for all of the contestants who had shown that they had truly developed an impressive knowledge of neuroscience.

After photos were taken and the awards distributed, the contestants, families, and audience members began to flow out into the Family Brain Fair that awaited them just outside the auditorium. They snacked, celebrated, and walked from booth to booth, taking in the brain-related exhibits staffed by Columbia graduate students and Ph.D. scientists.

In the north lobby they tasted jelly beans while holding their noses, learning about the importance of smell for flavor. They practiced tracing images while looking only at a reflection of their hands, embodying procedural learning. They played the Stroop Test game, exploring processing speeds of different stimuli; and they placed electrical sensors on their hands to witness the electrical activity of their muscles.


In the west lobby, they saw real human and animal brains and they played a bean-bag toss game while wearing perception-altering goggles, discovering how quick short-term adaptations in the brain can be.

The winner of the 2014 NYC Brain Bee, Hetince Zhao of Flushing, NY, left with not only pride in her achievement, but also a prize of $500 and a trip for two to the National Brain Bee Championship in Bethesda, Maryland. We at Columbia are preparing a special training session for our champion before she heads to the National competition in March.

This year’s Brain Bee included both some of the original event organizers from the first NYC competition, along with several first-time volunteers. But whether it’s your first or your 10th, there is a magic to the Brain Bee that persists, and that keeps us invigorated year round. Whether or not you made it this year, we hope to see all of you at the 2015 NYC Brain Bee next year!

Until then, stay brainy!

Katie and Jess

Jess is an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Columbia University, where she studies hippocampal modulation of mood in mice.

Katie is a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Columbia University, where she studies learning and memory mechanisms in insects. 

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