D.C. Brain Bee Nurtures Interest in the Sciences
Twenty-two students from high schools across Washington, D.C., tested their knowledge of neuroscience February 2 at the D.C. Brain Bee, hosted by the Society for Neuroscience at American University.
The Brain Bee is much like a spelling bee, only with questions on the functions of subcortical structures and the pharmacological applications of neurotransmitters rather than Greek and Latin roots. It provides a venue for secondary school students to learn about the brain and leads them to pursue careers in biomedical research.
This was the second year that Jerry Yang, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School, had competed. He had been studying the brain for a year and a half and, as this year’s winner, he will continue to study as he prepares for the U.S. Regional Brain Bee, March 16–18, in Baltimore, Md.
Yang, whose favorite topics are plasticity followed by learning and memory, embodies a quiet studiousness, counterbalanced by an outspoken appreciation for the brain.
“The brain is undoubtedly the most important organ,” he said. “There’s so much that’s still unknown and there’s so much that’s left to be found. We don’t really have a great understanding of the brain, and that’s what excites me the most.”
Taking second place was one of his biology classmates, Emily Yuan, who competed in last year’s Science Olympiad Anatomy & Physiology event. In third place was Chris Jose, of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Appearing in a radioactive green suit jacket printed with question marks and a tie designed in a fractal pattern of brains was moderator Ben Fiore-Walker, manager of the Department of Diversity Programs at the American Chemical Society and a former neuroscience professor at Georgetown University. Attempting to loosen the students up by sharing facts and telling stories, including one of mice chasing students around his lab, he touted the importance of finding fun in learning about the brain.
“Neuroscience I think incorporates all the other basic sciences, so you have chemistry, you have biology, you have physiology, you have pharmacology, all the -ologies, all rolled up into the discipline of neuroscience,” he said. “Having them compete and having them answer questions and just get on stage and do that, it opens that door to a love of science.”
With questions coming from SfN’s Brain Facts book, which may be incorporated into school curricula, the Brain Bee was founded in 1999 by Norbert Myslinski, an associate professor at the University of Maryland.
“I think it’s a nice way for [the students] to carve out some dedicated time to focus on learning neuroscience,” said Lauren Ullrich, a health program specialist and program analyst at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and one of the event’s judges.
While the bee inspires students to discover neuroscience and related fields, the contestants reciprocally inspire the volunteer judges, who this year came from American, Georgetown, Howard, and George Washington universities, AAAS, NIH, and SfN.
“I’m a neuroscientist, and I’m not sure that I was that excited about the brain in high school. I’m always blown away. Facts that I’ve even forgotten by now, they know them all by heart and have spent so much time learning them. It’s really inspiring,” Ullrich said.
In the nearly 20 years Walker has been moderating the bee, he has watched as hundreds of students have competed, some of them multiple times, and gone on to pursue careers in neuroscience. “The next thing you know they’re going for their PhD or MD,” he said. “When you see the excitement that they have, it rekindles the excitement that hopefully you can remember that you had.”
SfN’s sponsorship and hosting of the D.C. Brain Bee aligns with its long-standing commitment to public outreach and neuroscience education.