Twenty students from 14 schools across Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia braved the snow and ice to participate in the DC Regional Brain Bee on Feb. 17. The event, which had been delayed a week because of consecutive snowstorms in the area, also drew about four dozen spectators, many of whom played silently along with the competitors, trying to answer tough questions about the brain and how it works.
The regional Brain Bee is a live Q&A competition that tests high school students’ knowledge of neuroscience, with questions based on the free publication Brain Facts, published by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). Many of the students brought their dog-eared, Post-it-noted copies of the 74-page primer with them to the Dana Center in Washington for last-minute cramming before the competition.
Winner Suzanne Perucci of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, in Olney, Md., had done her cramming the night before, in the form of some quick quizzing by her mother. Other than that, re-reading Brain Facts and making and reviewing note cards were her keys to success, she said.
Through the six preliminary rounds and the final round, she was consistently one of the first to write down and display her answer to the judges. Only in the sudden-death round did she slow down, but then so did final-round contestants Farrell Sheehan of St. Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington, D.C., and Fang Cao of Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland. All answered a question wrong, so the competition continued until Perucci was the only one to correctly answer the question: “In electrical stimulation therapy, a new form of epilepsy treatment, an implantable, pacemaker-like device delivers small bursts of electrical energy to the brain via what cranial nerve?”
The answer, “vagus nerve,” had resonance for Bee judge Dr. Benjamin Walker of Georgetown University. Some of his research is on vagus nerve stimulation.
“The brain is such a dynamic organ,” he told the students. “Neuroscientists have the luxury of trying to figure it out. That’s the fun of it.”
Perucci, a senior, was a newbie to the competition, which is open to all high-school grades. Her anatomy teacher, knowing she was thinking of majoring in neurology, suggested she give the contest a go. She won $250 and an all-expenses paid trip to compete in the National Brain Bee, to be held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, March 19–20, as part of Brain Awareness Week. Competitors at nationals run a gamut of challenges, including identifying parts of real brains in the lab and diagnosing the ailments of seven “patients,” portrayed by actors.
At least 19 other countries also plan national brain bees this year, from Switzerland to New Zealand. Each national winner may compete at the International Brain Bee, to be held later this year. In addition to other prizes, the winners of the U.S., Canadian, and international bees also will earn the opportunity to work for the summer in the lab of a practicing neuroscientist.
The DC event was presented by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and co-sponsored by NRTA: AARP’s Educator Community, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Society for Neuroscience.
Before the competition, Bee judge Dr. Ben Walker of Georgetown University asks how many participants are contemplating a career in the sciences. All twenty competitors raised their hands.