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Mentoring the next generation of scientists

Last weekend, Washington University hosted the 7th annual St. Louis Area Brain Bee (SLABB) in Rebstock Hall on the Danforth Campus.

The Brain Bee is an international neuroscience competition for students in grades 9-12. This year, 55 students from 44 high schools around the St. Louis region participated in the SLABB. The event featured hands-on activities designed to illustrate principles of brain science like recording from living neurons in cockroach and communicating with an electric fish. Students prepared ahead for the competition by reading from Brain Facts, a book published by the Society for Neuroscience. During the Brain Bee, students and friends enjoy the chance to meet other like-minded peers in the area.

This year’s winner was Nidhi Bhaskar, a senior from MICDS High School in Ladue. To celebrate her accomplishment, she will be given a fellowship to do summer research at WashU and an all-expenses-paid trip to compete in the National Brain Bee in March.

The local competition is organized by neuroscientist Erik Herzog, a professor of biology and a faculty fellow for the university’s Institute for School Partnership, which aims to boost STEM education in local schools. “This competition grows every year,” Herzog says, “and I’m impressed with the knowledge these high schoolers demonstrate. I love seeing so many young people excited about learning.”

Aside from this year having the largest cohort of competitors yet for the regional Brain Bee, Herzog says they were able to offer a new experience for the students and their families. “This year, for the first time, we were able to show the high school students a laboratory and several classrooms. We also invited the competitors and their families to talk with current WashU students and a person from WU Admissions about how to choose a college.”

Undergraduate students in Synapse, WashU’s neuroscience club, assist with the organization and lead the high school students through the activities. Junior Laura Motard was the Student Coordinator of the Brain Bee, and serves as the internal VP for the club. She says, “Although it was a hectic day, I think that ultimately the competitors and their families seemed to have a great time. We had a lot of wonderful volunteers who made the day a success; it’s just not possible to put on such a large event without a lot of help. In the few moments that I was able to step back and just watch all of our volunteers work, it was incredibly satisfying.”

At the end of the day, Motard says it was the competitors themselves who made the experience so rewarding for her. “The highlight for me was watching our top two contenders compete neck and neck with each other in the final round. I was blown away by their knowledge; most of the information that is required for the Brain Bee I hadn’t learned until college, and they answered without hesitation. It was very impressive to see such motivated and passionate high schoolers.”

Madison Kasoff, also a junior and the Synapse Education Development Chair, headed up three weekends of tutorials for the competitors, which were coordinated with Holly Pope of the St. Louis Science Center. These tutorials introduce the competitors to key concepts in neuroscience ranging from brain anatomy and physiology to neurodegenerative diseases and ethics. They also challenge WashU undergraduates to prepare and present informative lessons.

Kasoff says, “To see those students that I had helped teach, not only show up to the event, but end up in the top ten was really rewarding. I was never given the opportunity to learn neuroscience in high school. So, to see these students so passionate about a subject that I love so much, at such a young age, made my day and made me excited to see all that they will go on to do next. At the end of the event, a sophomore who had come to all of the tutorials I had led thanked me for the experience he had that day and the month preceding the event. He hadn’t gotten into the top ten, but being there and seeing the passion that other students had for the subject had motivated him to try harder, and he left with a smile on his face and the urge to come back next year and perform even better.”

For more information, please visit the SLABB website and read coverage of last year’s event on the Source.

February 2017 | by, Rebecca King Pierce

Original story published on The Ampersand.