Twenty-five national Brain Bee champions from around the world traveled to Washington, DC, this week to compete in the 2017 World Brain Bee. The competition tests high school students on a variety of neuroscience topics through oral tests, a neuroanatomy laboratory exam with real human brains, a neurohistology test, and a diagnosis test with patient actors. The purpose of the Brain Bee is to motivate young people to study the brain and to inspire them to consider careers in neuroscience, said International Brain Bee President and Founder Norbert Mylinksi, Ph.D.
For the first-place winner of this year’s Regional Brain Bee, biology was always the high school senior’s favorite subject in school. But it wasn’t until she was 14 years old that Winsome Ching narrowed her focus to neuroscience. After visiting a museum celebrating Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud in Vienna, Ching was “hooked” by his theories on the brain, she says. Since then, she has transitioned from Freud’s psychoanalyses to the biological aspects of brain function.
Ching’s passion for neuroscience shined through at the Brain Bee this past Saturday, along with her peers from 33 high schools spanning across Long Island, Westchester County, and New York City’s five boroughs. Half of Columbia University’s Alfred Lerner Hall was filled by a grid of white tables, adorned with the students’ name cards, directly facing the judges’ table; the other half was bustling with family members, friends, and teachers all gathered to cheer on the participating students. In the time before the competition began, students were scattered throughout the auditorium for one last chance to review notes and textbook chapters on the brain. Once all participants checked in, the competition began.
Each year at its annual meeting, the Society for Neuroscience recognizes outstanding neuroscientists who have strongly added to public education and awareness about the field. The Dana Foundation sponsors these awards. This year’s award was presented to Dr. Norbert Myslinski, professor of Neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and founder of the International Brain Bee.
Q: Was it a conscious decision to do a lot of education and outreach, as well as research?
Dr. Norbert Myslinski: My growth in neuroscience education was an evolutionary process from the very beginning. Inspiration was all around me throughout life. My grandfather who fled Poland just before World War I and my father who fought in World War II taught me how precious life was. My religious educators in elementary and high school; my psychology teacher at Canisius College, Dr. Donald L. Tollefson; my Ph.D. advisor at the University of Illinois, Dr. Edmund G. Anderson; all gave me a life-long fascination with the human brain and mind. Brain disorders in my family made me determined to find cures: My wife died of a brain tumor; my father suffered from Guillain–Barré syndrome and died of a stroke; my brother suffers from spinal cord injury and polyneuroma; my cousins are victims of multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, autism, and drug addiction; and my mother lives with Alzheimer’s disease. Early in my research career I realized that finding cures for these disorders needed not only funds, but also a steady stream of young dedicated scientists. In the last century, neuroscience education was not a priority in our schools and society, but I soon made it a priority of mine.
Q. The Brain Bee, which you started in 1998 in North America, is now an international success. How did you scale the project up, or was the growth more organic?
A. The idea of the Brain Bee started in my basement. When the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives initiated Brain Awareness Week (BAW), I felt that the Brain Bee would be an excellent way to inspire and motivate young men and women to pursue careers in neuroscience. It would be a fun competition that was challenging but not overwhelming. Its first year in Maryland was a big success. I then contacted 12 other directors of BAW activities in the United States and Canada and created a network of Brain Bees and a second level international championship. Soon other countries such as India and Australia joined. So many other countries joined that we had to add an intermediate national level of competition. All the national champions are now invited to the World Championship that is held in a different country annually. Through the years, Florence, Italy; Cape Town, South Africa; Cairns, Australia; Vienna, Austria; Toronto, Canada; Copenhagen, Denmark; Washington, DC, and others have been venues for the World Championship. We have now grown to more than 50 countries.
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.
Do we really only use ten percent of our brains? Is it possible to be genuinely skilled at multitasking? With so much information out there about our brains, separating fact from fiction is not always an easy feat. Part of our mission at the Dana Foundation is to educate the public about the brain and its functions and potential; so we set out to do just that at this year’s NYC Regional Brain Bee.
We approached attendees at random and asked a set of brain-related trivia questions. With a mixed bag of responses, our goal was to not only debunk some common misconceptions, but share a few new facts as well: