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KU Medical Center hosts Brain Bee to promote knowledge in the neurosciences

Area high school students came to KU Medical Center to participate in Kansas City Regional Brain Bee, a qualifier for the USA Brain Bee, sponsored by the Society for Neuroscience.

Three students stand on a spiral staircase holding prize ribbons
From left to right: Rohan Venkatesh, a junior at Park Hill South High School, who placed second; Nithya Mamalayan, a senior at Blue Valley Northwest High School, who placed third; and Ben Parrack, a senior at Blue Valley High School, who placed first. Photo contributed by Julie Christianson, Ph.D., professor of cell biology and physiology at KU Medical Center.

KU Medical Center served as the host of 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 of local Brain Bees across the country progress to the national competition, the USA Brain Bee Championship, which will be held this year at the University of California, Irvine, in April.

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

“Brain Bee is like a spelling bee that builds knowledge, and students can meet peers who are also interested in neuroscience and compete on a level where they hopefully keep that interest and allow it to grow,” said Stair. “It 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 foster their love of neuroscience as they go into college.”

Bright futures

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

The questions were drawn from a guidebook provided by the Society for Neuroscience. Questions covered many aspects of the brain’s function and biology, e.g., “What is the most prevalent neurotransmitter in the mammalian nervous system?”

Three students advanced to the seventh and final round, during which they answered their questions on a whiteboard, instead of index cards, and read their answers aloud. To be eliminated from the final round, the 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 nobody got the answer right, no strikes were counted for that question).

Ben Parrack, a senior at Blue Valley High School, was named the winner of the competition. He said the teacher in his molecular medicine engineering class suggested that he enter the competition. Parrack prepared by conducting research on the brain and reading up on past competitions. He said he did not expect to win, especially since he didn’t know the answers to some of the questions that the second-place finisher had answered correctly. “I thought, there’s no way I’m going to beat this guy, so I was pretty surprised,” Parrack said.

As the winner of the competition in Kansas City, Parrack received a $300 prize. He will also receive tutoring 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 attend 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 practice as an interventional neuroradiologist,” he said.

Rohan Venkatesh, a junior at Park Hill South High School who finished second and won a $100 in prize money, said he plans to work in health care and would like to study neurology. “I want to provide care to people with age-associated neurocognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and find ways to diagnose these conditions earlier,” 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 has not yet chosen the college she will attend). A senior at Blue Valley Northwest High School, Mamalayan said she is planning to be a psychiatrist but is open to other health care fields.

Reaching a broader area

“This was an especially sharp group of students, and the volunteers and professors in attendance were very happy with the results,” said Stair. “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 Kansas City Regional Brain Bee. “Participants are encouraged to come to their closest chapter, wherever it is,” she said. “We were open to anyone who wants to get interested in neuroscience or try their mettle.”

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

“We want to do a good job of growing a crop of neuroscientists where we live, as opposed to thinking we have to recruit people who are excited about neuroscience from the coasts or from somewhere else,” Young said. “We feel like this program can provide an opportunity for students to see what they could do in terms of the neuroscience community locally.”

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