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Like a spelling bee, but for neuroscience: WashU Brain Bee set for Feb. 16

Erik Herzog was starting to get concerned. He was deep into the oral portion of the 2018 St. Louis Area Brain Bee and the unthinkable was on the horizon: He was running out of questions.

“The contestants had never performed so well in the past,” said Herzog, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “The competitors went to about 58 questions, and I had about 10 more left.”

Luckily, Akhil Kondepudi of Ladue Horton Watkins High School clinched the competition with the winning answer to the question: “Sonic hedgehog is important for the development of what part of the nervous system?” The answer was spinal cord, the judges also accepted cerebellum.

Herzog, Brain Bee organizer, moderator and chair of the university’s Institute for School Partnership’s Faculty Fellows Program, said the situation speaks to the exceptional skills of the participants. He’s continually impressed how the competitors seem to do better year after year. With that memory still fresh on his mind, he’s ready for this year’s competitors.  

“I have more questions. I have harder questions,” he said. “I need to be ready for the student who doesn’t get anything wrong in the first 33 questions.”

Herzog works with undergraduate and graduate students to formulate the Brain Bee questions. He also taps into his archives, recycling questions from prior years. And for the first time, the Society for Neuroscience, which sponsors the national and international Brain Bee competitions, will provide 100 standardized questions which Herzog is free to use.

The competition, open to high school and homeschool students in grades 9-12, starts with a written exam. The top 10 finishers then move on to an oral round, which resembles a spelling bee where students take turns answering questions about the brain and nervous system.

“I actually have my students take the written quiz to make sure all of the questions make sense,” Herzog said.

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It’s not meant to be a show of super-human intelligence

What is a positron emission tomography (PET) scan? That question brought last year’s competition to a pause and led to an open exchange. The student’s answer was initially judged to be incorrect, but it was contested.

“The actual physics of PET came into question,” Herzog explained. “The student’s answer was perfectly legitimate once we understood what they were thinking, and we accepted their answer. Luckily, I’m a neuroscientist so when a student writes down an answer that isn’t on the official answer list we are prepared to hear their thinking on it.”

The audience applauded after the exchange, Herzog recalled.

There are two official judges in addition to Herzog who make the final decisions on questions and answers.

“It’s meant to be a fun day. It’s not meant to be a show of super-human intelligence,” he said.  “For me, the reward is seeing high school students coming together, interacting with each other and meeting WashU students.”

In addition to the competition, participants take part in hands-on demonstrations and hear from a panel of people in different stages of their neuroscience career, from students majoring in neuroscience to postdocs and faculty members.

The Brain Bee marks its ninth year of competition this year and draws students from over 50 high schools around the St. Louis area and beyond.

Kondepudi, last year’s champ, went on to win the national competition and then represented the United States at the World Brain Bee Championships in Berlin. While he didn’t win, he did extraordinary well in the competition.

Herzog said the Brain Bee has become a family tradition for some participants.

“We’ll have middle school students in the audience watching an older sibling, and they come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I’ll be here when I get to high school.’”

The 2019 St. Louis Area Brain Bee is set for 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, February 16, at Washington University’s Danforth Campus. Students can prepare for the competition by attending tutorial sessions at the Taylor Center from 9:30am-11:00pm on Jan 26, Feb 2 and Feb 9. Each session will cover different chapters from the readings in Brain Facts, which is used in the Brain Bee competition.

Register for the Brain Bee

January 09, 2019 | by, Myra Lopez