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KU Medical Center hosts Brain Bee to advance knowledge in neuroscience

KU Medical Center hosted the 2023 Kansas City Regional Brain Bee, a local contest sponsored by the Kansas City chapter of the Society for Neuroscience (SfNKC) to get high school students interested in learning about the human brain. Winners from local Brain Bees across the country move on to the national competition, the USA Brain Bee Championship, to be held this year at the University of California, Irvine in April.

Participants gathered at the Beller Conference Center on the University of Kansas Medical Center campus on Feb. 11 to be asked about the human brain. During the competition, students answered a series of neuroscience-related questions presented on a screen and read aloud by Rena Stair, a student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at KU Medical Center and co-chair of SfNKC.

“Brain Bee is like a spelling bee that creates knowledge, and students can meet peers who are also interested in neuroscience and compete at a level where they hopefully maintain that interest and allow it to grow,” Stair said. “She also allows these students to meet professors, graduate students and other members of the neuroscience community who are doing science in this field. They can then further their love of neuroscience as they go to college.

Bright futures

After each question was read, students wrote their answers on index cards. Each participant had to answer a certain number of questions correctly in order to move on to the next round.

The questions were drawn from guidance provided by the Society for Neuroscience. The questions covered many aspects of brain function and biology, such as “What is the most prevalent neurotransmitter in the mammalian nervous system?”

Three students progressed to the seventh and final round, during which they answered their questions on a chalkboard, instead of index cards, and read their answers aloud. To be eliminated from the final round, students had to get two “strikes”. A strike was defined as a wrong answer to a question that at least one other finalist answered correctly. (If no one answered correctly, no strikes counted for that question).

Ben Parrack, a senior at Blue Valley High School, was named the winner of the contest. He said the teacher in his molecular medicine engineering class suggested he enter the competition. Parrack prepared by conducting brain research and reading up on past competitions. He said he didn’t expect to win, mostly because he didn’t know the answers to some of the questions the runner-up had answered correctly. “I thought, there’s no beating this guy, so I was kind of surprised,” Parrack said.

As the winner of the contest in Kansas City, Parrack was awarded a $300 prize. He will also receive mentorship and study materials from the SfNKC and a stipend to compete at the USA Brain Bee in California in April. In the fall, he will be attending the University of Alabama, where he plans to major in molecular biology and prepare for medical school. “And then, in an ideal world, I’ll be practicing as an interventional neuroradiologist,” he said.

Rohan Venkatesh, a student at Park Hill South High School who finished second and won $100 prize money, said he plans to work in healthcare and would like to study neurology. “I want to provide care for people with age-associated neurocognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and find ways to diagnose these conditions early,” he said.

Nithya Mamalayan, who placed third in the competition and received a $50 cash prize, said she plans to major in psychology or neuroscience when she goes to college in the fall (she hasn’t yet chosen which college she will attend). A senior at Blue Valley Northwest High School, Mamalayan said she plans to become a psychiatrist, but she is open to other fields of health care.

Reach a larger area

“This was a particularly sharp group of students, and the volunteers and professors in attendance were very happy with the results,” Stair said. “The future of neuroscience is bright in Kansas City.”

Stair also noted that students from schools outside the Kansas City area are welcome to participate in the Kansas City Regional Brain Bee. “Attendees are encouraged to come to their nearest chapter, wherever that may be,” she said. “We were open to anyone who wanted to get interested in neuroscience or try their mettle.”

SfNKC co-chair Erin Young, Ph.D., assistant professor of anesthesiology, pain, and perioperative medicine at KU School of Medicine, agreed, noting that it’s important to generate interest in the field in a broader area.

“We want to do a good job of cultivating a crop of neuroscientists where we live, instead of thinking we need to recruit neuroscience-enthusiasts from the coasts or somewhere else,” Young said. “We believe this program could provide an opportunity for students to see what they might be doing in terms of the neuroscience community at the local level.”

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