Monthly Archives: July 2015

Testing young brains: The English Brain Bee Challenge

Brain_Bee_groupOn Friday 12 June 2015, 47 high school students congregated at University College, London to take part in the inaugural English Brain Bee, a neuroscience quiz-style competition. The majority of participants were Year 9 students from the nearby Maria Fidelis Catholic School; the rest were a Year 10 group from Simon Balle School in Hertford.

The English Brain Bee is the most recent addition to over 30 countries that participate in the International Brain Bee, founded by Norbert Myslinski in 1998 to encourage young students to learn about the human brain and pursue careers in neuroscientific research. An estimated 30,000 students compete annually across the world, in countries as diverse as the USA, Nigeria and Macau. They can advance through three tiers of competition, from local to national and ultimately to the International Championship.

Participants prepared by studying the 60-page booklet The Science of the Brain, a publication of the British Neuroscience Association which is available to download online. This covers a breadth of topics often in degree-level detail, such as the neurological mechanisms underlying sleep, stress and motor function. Additionally a primer on neuroanatomy was provided to aid the students’ understanding of structures such as the hippocampus and ventricular system.

A team of six UCL science undergraduate volunteers had prepared a range of activities and challenges. After a short written quiz to warm up, the first question-and-answer session began. Participants individually approached the front of the lecture theatre to answer a question posed by the esteemed judging panel, UCL professors, Stephen Price and Jason Rihel as well as PhD student, Łukasz Kopeć.

After lunch the students listened with interest to a talk by Prof Rihel about his research, the mechanisms underlying sleep in zebrafish. The neuroanatomy section followed, where participants had to identify the structures indicated on brain models and histological images, and their associated functions.

Those who finished had the opportunity to perform some fun neuroscience experiments, such as trying ‘miracle fruit’ tablets that alter taste perception, and guess which neurological mechanisms were at work. “It was such a pleasure to see all the students doing the experiments we had prepared for them and seeing that they were genuinely interested in the science behind them,” observed Marta Tondera of the Brain Bee organising committee.

Finally, all scores were tallied and the top ten participants were selected to take part in the ultimate question-and-answer session, which would determine the champion of the competition. Tension mounted during the final rounds, where more than one incorrect answer would result in elimination. The rest of the lecture theatre fell silent as the finalists attempted to answer questions such as the propagation of an action potential.

Eventually Elspeth Grace from Simon Balle School became the first-ever champion of the English Brain Bee. She was awarded an engraved trophy and a £100 Amazon gift voucher. Runners-up were India Warman and Georgina Goddard, both from Simon Balle School.

The Brain Bee was not only an enriching experience for the prize-winners, but was enjoyable for all participants, volunteers, teachers and judges involved. “I had great fun on the drive in”, said Dr Gareth Jones, a teacher from Simon Balle School, “A minibus full of kids talking about the hippocampus and basal ganglia! Cool huh!”

The English Brain Bee will continue to take place annually. The vision is for it to branch out into smaller, local-scale competitions across the country, to reach an extent comparable to countries with the more established Brain Bee communities, such as the USA or Australia. By doing so, the Brain Bee aspires to ‘spread the word’ of neuroscience amongst the next generation of students, sparking an interest for scientific research as a whole and motivating the pursuit of neuroscience as a career.

Katarina Zimmer, University College, London, UK

The English Brain Bee was sponsored by The Physiological Society and UCL’s Volunteering Services Unit. To learn more, visit http://www.englishbrainbee.org.  

This article was published in Physiology News 100.

sophie scott

Researcher in the Spotlight July 2015

Professor Sophie Scott is Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Group Leader for the Speech Communication Neuroscience Group at UCL. Her research is on the neurobiology of speech perception, including the functional sub systems in human auditory cortex, the evolution of speech, the difference between intelligibilty and comprehension, and profiles of recovery in aphasia.

Sophie Scott gave the Annual Public Lecture at Physiology 2015 on the Science of Laughter on Monday 6 July 2015 from 18.30. You can watch it here

What is your research about?

I study the human brain, and the ways that it lets us communicate with each other, using our voices. I am interested in why we sound the way we do, how we have conversation and how we can decode information from other people’s voices – and I’m also interested in how this can go wrong!

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

I really wanted to study the psychology of music when I was an undergraduate, and I’m still not entirely certain why that didn’t happen. In fact, the person on whose music psychology research I’d based my undergraduate project took me on to do a PhD, but his interests were more in speech by that time. I have no regrets – voices are amazing.

Why is your work important?

Humans voices – from speech to laughter – are at the centre of most of our social interactions, and being isolated from this can be devastating – both personally and in more clinical terms. When we talk to each other, we share information, but we also make and maintain social bonds, and we even regulate our emotions this way. I can’t think of anything more interesting!

Do you think your work can make a difference?

I hope so. Work from my lab has made a difference to how we conceptualise the processing of speech and voices in the brain, and I have been at the forefront of the push to try and situate vocal communication within the realm of social neuroscience. I’m also one of a handful of scientists trying to take laughter seriously – and I think we might manage to do this!

What does a typical day involve?

Writing, lab meetings, planning studies, discussing data, discussing papers. Without exception, what I enjoy most of all is planning studies and looking at data. I also travel quite a lot, to give talks and go to conferences.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I always enjoy looking at data. “The pleasure of finding things out” as Feynman put it. One of my post-docs, Saloni Krishnan, has nearly finished a study looking at differences between beatboxers, electric guitar players, and non-expert controls when they listen to music and sounds. The results are so exciting that I can’t stop thinking about them! I literally want to tell everyone, and is so exciting when data really start to make you think.

What do you enjoy the least?

Admin.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I have a secret life doing science-based stand-up comedy. Well, not very secret if you know me, as I bang on about it a lot.

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Take the time to find the stuff you really enjoyed studying – it’s your life and your research career, so you should allow yourself to focus on what really grabs your interest. Also, there are lots of different ways of being a scientist and conducting research, so try and spend time in different places and lab and see what styles work for you. Never be afraid to make contact with people and ask to visit their labs – in my experience scientists are very open and inclusive. Also, life is too short to collaborate with people you don’t get on with. Collaborations are brilliant, and you should enjoy them, not suffer through them.