Meeting Tomorrow’s Neuroscientists: Behind the Scenes at the NYC Brain Bee

Guest post by Jess and Katie, neuroscience candidates at Columbia University

Judging by the Saturday morning calm on Columbia University’s Morningside campus, you might think January 31 was a typical lazy weekend. But just inside the doors of Lerner auditorium, the tension was palpable: the Brain Bee competition was only hours away, and the contestants were poring over their notes, taking advantage of every last moment before taking the stage. This was the day they had been preparing for since December—they had arrived at the 2015 NYC Regional Brain Bee.

brainbee guest post

Seniors from Queens’ John Bowne High School posing at the Brain Bee. Photo Credit: johnbowne.org

Every winter, talented high school students across the country are selected to represent their schools in a regional Brain Bee, a spelling-bee-like competition that tests their knowledge of neuroscience. For the past four years, Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach (CUNO) has partnered with the Dana Alliance to prepare the students for the contest and to host it on the Columbia campus in Morningside Heights. As the leaders of CUNO’s Brain Bee activities, we recruited volunteers from the Columbia community to help teach the material to the high school competitors, to proctor the competition itself, and to wrap up the festivities with a Family Brain Fair.

Brain Bee prep included two optional Saturdays of instruction and review at Columbia’s Medical Center in Washington Heights. At the first session, volunteers taught lessons ranging from brain basics and neurodevelopment to sensation and perception. Two weeks later, the contestants returned to learn about topics like human brain imaging, the neuroscience of sleep, and various neurological disorders and how to diagnose them. After the lessons, we gave them a chance to show off what they’d learned in a game of “Brain Jeopardy,” led by Columbia undergraduates (who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to volunteer, despite being on their winter break!).

We topped off the day by taking the high schoolers on two lab tours. At one demonstration, they saw olfactory neurons in the fruit fly brain that had been manipulated to glow green when the neurons were activated. They watched as pulses of scented air were blown at the fly, and groups of neurons lit up in response to the plumes of odor. In another demonstration, they saw two species of fish that use electrical pulses to locate prey and other fish. Demonstrations like these are “more stimulating than learning things in the abstract” explained volunteer Dan Kato. Dan placed recording electrodes into the water and attached them to an acoustic amplifier that converts electrical pulses into sounds, so that the students heard loud clicks every time the fish discharged their electric organs. He even added a few worms to the tank to show the students how the fish change the frequency of pulses they emit when they are locating food. “I was impressed with their level of knowledge of action potential physiology,” Dan told us, referring to the mechanisms by which neurons fire. Clearly, these competitors had been studying!

One week later, soon after a blizzard shut down the city’s subway system, we were relieved to wake up to a crisp January day—bitterly cold, but thankfully dry and calm. To commence the day’s event, Dr. Frances Champagne, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, shared her research on how environmental and genetic factors affect maternal behavior, and how this in turn affects the development of offspring. Dr. Champagne highlighted exciting findings investigating the mechanism through which life experience can affect gene expression and behavior, and why these mechanisms are so important for our healthcare systems to take into consideration. The audience was captivated by the talk, and, at the end, a dozen hands were raised by students and parents alike, interested in learning more.

Now it was time for the big event! Professor Mike Shadlen, two-year veteran emcee of the event, took the podium and instructed Brain Bee competitors to take their seats in front of the judges.

The top three competitors from the 2015 NYC Brain Bee pose with the judges and the MC. From left: Judge Kelly C. Rilett, Ph.D.; Melissa Cao, second place winner; Master of Ceremonies Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D.; Akash Pillai, third place winner; Judge Haung (Ho) Yu, Ph.D.; Mary Zhuo Ke, first place winner; Judge Sebastien Thuault, Ph.D.

The top three competitors from the 2015 NYC Brain Bee pose with the judges and the MC. From left: Judge Kelly C. Rilett, Ph.D.; Melissa Cao, second place winner; Master of Ceremonies Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D.; Akash Pillai, third place winner; Judge Haung (Ho) Yu, Ph.D.; Mary Zhuo Ke, first place winner; Judge Sebastien Thuault, Ph.D.

After many rounds of questions and deliberations, four competitors remained. It took a dozen questions to stump these neuroscience-whiz competitors, but finally the first-, second-, and third-place winners were announced! In third place was 17-year-old Akash Pillai from Townsend Harris High School in Queens, in second place was 16-year-old Melissa Cao from Bethpage High School in Long Island, and taking first place was 17-year-old Mary Zhuo Ke from Cathedral High in Manhattan. We congratulated Mary and introduced ourselves, explaining that we would help her to prepare for the next phase—the national competition.

CUNO volunteers teaching visitors about the adaptability of their brains with a bean-bag tossing game during the Family Brain Fair. Photo credit: Kelley Remole (2015).

CUNO volunteers teaching visitors about the adaptability of their brains with a bean-bag tossing game during the Family Brain Fair. Photo credit: Kelley Remole (2015).

One of the favorite events, especially among volunteers, is the Family Brain Fair. The fair comes immediately after the competition, giving all contestants and their families a chance to celebrate with educational activities. Activities included a station with Muscle Spiker Boxes, where visitors measured electrical activity in their own muscles by applying electrodes to their skin; a Stroop Test Challenge, where visitors participated in a perceptual interference game; and of course the ever-popular Brain Bank booth.

The brain bank was a hit with all ages at the Family Brain Fair. Photo credit: Kelley Remole (2015).

The brain bank was a hit with all ages at the Family Brain Fair. Photo credit: Kelley Remole (2015).

As always, the human brains drew some of the biggest crowds, and generated astonished sounds from the visitors. One little boy was so excited that he tried to bring a brain over to his baby brother’s stroller to explain to him what he had just learned.

Now that the regional competition is over, our champion, Mary Zhuo Ke, is busy preparing to compete in the National Brain Bee, which will take place March 20-22 in Baltimore, Maryland. We are beyond delighted with every student who took the initiative to learn about the brain and pursue science with a passion. As Mike Shadlen said at the beginning of the competition, “Every competitor has already succeeded by making it here today, having increased their knowledge about neuroscience and the brain.”

About the authors:

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 the brains of fruit flies to learn about associative memory.

Want to learn more about the brain and find activities in the New York City area?

Visit CUNO at www.columbiabrains.org, and our partners at http://comebebrainy.com/. Live somewhere else? See the Brain Awareness Week calendar for events near you.

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