Twelfth-grader Melissa Cao, from Long Island’s Bethpage High School, took home the grand prize after a close race with two other finalists at Saturday’s Regional Brain Bee at Columbia University in New York City. The local event is part of an annual international neuroscience competition. Winners advance into the national and then international competitions during the spring and summer months as part of Brain Awareness Week (BAW).
This year, the competition was especially stiff with a record number of participants from 38 high schools from the surrounding areas of Westchester County, Long Island, and all five boroughs of New York City. As director of BAW at the Dana Foundation, Kathleen Roina welcomed the audience and introduced the competition’s keynote speaker, Nima Mesgarani, Ph.D. He is currently part of Columbia University’s electrical engineering department, where he focuses on neural engineering, speech processing, and neuroinspired computation.
In his brief presentation, “The Brain Behind Speech Communication,” Mesgarani took the audience on a virtual tour through the ear canal, using Bach’s familiar “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” to demonstrate what happens when people are exposed to different sound vibrations. He explained that “what you hear is not the same as what goes into your ears” and why the perception of sound and neural code depends on a multitude of factors, including the listener’s attention, expectation of the sound, and what the listener sees. Mesgarani’s presentation inspired a series of questions from Brain Bee participants and audience members.
As the eight-round competition began, 56 high school students filled the rows of white tables at Lerner Hall. With each new round, the questions’ difficulty level increased, and participants gradually returned to their seats among the audience until only three remained. The final question that determined the winner asked students to name two of the four touch receptors, also known as “mechanoreceptors.” (There are four known mechanoreceptors responsible for perceiving sensations such as pressure, vibrations, and texture.) After 30 seconds, Cao provided the answer: Pacinian corpuscles, Meissner’s corpuscles, Merkel’s discs, and Ruffini endings.
Cao received the grand prize of $500, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip for two to compete in the US National Brain Bee Championship in Maryland. She is a seasoned Brain Bee competitor, having won second place at last year’s event. A second place prize of $300 was awarded to Christeen Samuel from Brooklyn, and $100 went to Emery Powell from Bard High School Early College Queens.
Cao became fascinated by the brain after taking a neuroscience course as part of a summer program at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. Over the next few years, she participated in research programs at both Columbia University and Boston University to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the field. “It’s amazing to think about how a three-pound mass of tissue controls our whole body and is responsible for all of our thoughts, dreams, emotions, and memories,” she said.
Cao’s academic pursuits resonated when she witnessed her grandmother’s experience with Alzheimer’s disease. It also inspired her to continue to focus on researching dementias in college. “Learning about what happens when our neural circuitry goes wrong is the most intriguing part to me because by figuring out why things go wrong, we’re more equipped to help the millions of people in our society who have been affected.”
The Brain Bee Nationals will take place during the weekend of Brain Awareness Week (March 14-20). Information on registering for the 2016 Brain Bee will be up online in the fall, or you can email: BrainBee@dana.org.
– Seimi Rurup