Winners Announced: 2016 “Design a Brain Experiment”

After nearly six months of brainstorming, researching, writing, and waiting, the moment has finally arrived: the two winners of this year’s “Design a Brain Experiment” can claim their victory!

In the fall of 2015, we asked US high school students to come up with their best proposals for a brain-related experiment and submit them to the Dana Foundation’s annual contest. As the objective was not to have a completed science experiment, submissions were judged on the ingenuity and scientific accuracy of their proposed experiments. A record number of entries were received this year, making the task of selecting our winners even more challenging for our judges.

From Carmel High School in Indiana, Sepehr Asgari is our second place winner for his research proposal, “Engineering of Conjugated Endolysins to Combat Neurological Damage Caused by Bacterial Meningitis.” Bacterial meningitis occurs when a bacterial infection leads to the inflammation of the meninges and subarachnoid cerebrospinal fluid. FullSizeRender photoAsgari’s research aims to develop a form of treatment for the neuropathological disease with the use of Atilysins proteins. Because of the nature of these proteins, his proposed form of treatment would be less costly and more accessible to countries most affected by bacterial meningitis.

Asgari was previously acquainted with the topic of bacteriophage endolysins while doing lab research for school. “One day, I realized that I could apply the concept to treating bacterial meningitis, as it is a huge problem in developing countries,” he said. For Asgari, neuroscience is a subject that has captured his attention long before high school. He says he has been interested in the topic for as long as he can remember and plans to continue studying the brain in college as an aspiring neurosurgeon.

Our first place winner is a familiar name in neuroscience competitions this year. From Bard High School Early College Queens, Emery Powell takes home the grand prize for her submission, “Antagonists of the Fyn kinase pathway as potential therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.” Powell recently placed third in the New York City Regional Brain Bee, which took place just two weeks after the entry deadline for this competition. Her proposal explores a possible therapy involving various mechanisms associated with the Fyn kinase pathway to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, which causes dendritic spine loss and neuronal death.

Snake PicturePowell initially became interested in Alzheimer’s after studying the disease in her neurobiology class. She continued her research by scouring the internet for an outstanding question that she could then use as groundwork for her proposal. “It’s such a fascinating disease; we know so much about it, and yet when you’re doing the research, it feels like we know nothing,” says Powell. She attributes her passion for neuroscience to the teacher of her neurobiology class, Stephanie Kadison, Ph.D. She added, “I am of the opinion that everything has the potential to be interesting as long as someone is there in your life to show you why, and Dr. Kadison is certainly that someone for neuroscience.”

As a high school senior, Powell will be attending college this fall and plans to immediately follow with graduate school. Inspired by her teacher, she wants to pursue a doctorate and become a professor. As for which subject she’d like to teach, there is time for Powell to figure that out. “I know I’ll eventually have to narrow it down, but for now I’m content with saying that I’m going to continue studying everything. And that definitely includes neuroscience. How could it not? Brains are extraordinary!”

Congratulations to both first and second place winners, as well as to all participants for their impressive submissions. And thank you to our judges: Eric Chudler of the University of Washington, and Carolyn Asbury and Kenzie Novak of our own grants department. Stay tuned for our fall announcement for next year’s “Design a Brain Experiment” competition. More information can be found on our website or by emailing competition@dana.org.

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– Seimi Rurup

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