Speedy synapses come into play for Brain Bee

Sean Madigan

Electrical impulses raced across the surface of students’ gray matter as they spouted out answers as fast as their synapses could snap.
They responded to questions about Huntington’s disease and cranial capacity. Those who had the correct responses could breathe easy, proving there is nothing wrong with their medulla oblongatas.
More than a dozen brainiacs from seven high schools around the Twin Cities participated in the regional Brain Bee on Thursday at the Earle Brown Center. Students vied for a chance to compete in the National Brain Bee in Baltimore later this month.
Sponsored by the University’s graduate program in neuroscience, in an effort to promote National Brain Awareness Week — which is during finals week — organizers said the event is intended to incite student interest in science and the University.
“These are juniors and seniors, some of the best and brightest in the metro area, and we would like to get them to come to the U,” said Keith Kajander, an associate professor of cell biology and neuroanatomy.
Much like a traditional spelling bee, the Brain Bee challenges students’ knowledge of the human brain. Prior to the competition, students had the opportunity to cram their cerebral sponges with tidbits from the book, “Brain Facts,” published by the Society of Neuroscience.
Steve Archer, a junior at Tartan High School in Oakdale, said his physics teacher asked him to participate in the event. Although he admitted to studying for more than six hours, Archer said he was nervous.
“It’s some pretty intimidating competition,” Archer said.
Archer and other contestants fielded questions about the physical make-up of the brain, its functions and diseases associated with it. Members of the neuroscience faculty judged their responses for accuracy.
The competition winner will have a chance to meet with congressional leaders and visit the National Institutes of Health.
Although the Brain Bee and National Brain Awareness Week were designed to encourage youth enthusiasm for science, Kajander said the program also helps neuroscience graduate students become involved in the community.
“Scientists have a reputation for hiding up in ivory towers. We want our graduate students to participate — not just be a bunch of lab rats,” Kajander said.
During National Brain Awareness Week, more than 60 graduate students in the neuroscience program will visit more than 4,000 metro-area fifth- and sixth-grade students.
“We go out to the elementary schools and try and teach kids a basic understanding of how their brain and nervous system works,” said Emilia Cuneo Justin, one of the program’s organizers.