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Podcast Season 2

S2 Episode 3: Are You Smarter Than a Teenage Neuroscientist?

Welcome to the International Brain Bee, where the innovators of tomorrow — most of them still too young to drive — are spending their days memorizing brain parts, studying neurons, and even dissecting cadaver brains. Meet Norbert Mylinski, who founded the worldwide competition, and Julianne McCall, a Brain Bee alum who is now ‎co-director of the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine. Plus… How many Brain Bee questions could YOU answer? 

Phil Stieg: I’m excited to welcome Dr. Norbert Myslinski, founder of the U.S. Brain Bee, a program designed to help motivate teenagers and inspire interest in the neurosciences. In addition, he founded the International Youth Neuroscience Association. He is a professor at the University of Maryland. I’ve invited him today to make us aware of these amazing programs. He has grown the brain into an international phenomenon with over 250 chapters in countries throughout the world. Norbert, congratulations on your success and welcome.

Norbert Myslinski: It’s a delight to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Phil Stieg: So tell everybody what the International Brain Bee is.

Norbert Myslinski: The Brain Bee is a competition in neuroscience for teenagers.  And what we want to do is to inspire these young men and women to study the human brain.

Phil Stieg: Just in thinking about this, you know, just the function of the brain is overwhelming.  You know, having done this for 40 years now, I’m still daily amazed at what I don’t know. And if I’m a 13-year-old person, it would seem to me a little bit daunting.  What do you do to help them prepare for and guide them for the competition.

Norbert Myslinski: First of all, these young men and women are very smart, they’re very well motivated,

Phil Stieg: Smarter than you and me, right?

Norbert Myslinski: Absolutely! It gives me a lot of faith in the future knowing that these individuals would be leaders in days and years to come. You know, initially I tried to make it relatively simple. Like you said, neuroscience is complex. It’s not open ended. There are some resources that we provide for these men, women around the world that the question has come from. And these resources are translated into many languages and they are available free of charge. We don’t charge anything for the students to compete.  And so we help them that way. And then there are, in the local chapters, have their own ways of preparing the students. They have Brain Bee preparation courses and classes. Some of the competitors are invited into universities, cadaver labs to look and examine the brains. There are organizations that help to prepare the students like the International Youth Neuroscience Association

Phil Stieg: How many students are we talking about on an annual basis? 

Norbert Myslinski: We’re talking about, oh, about thirty thousand students.

Phil Stieg: Wow, and that’s worldwide?

Norbert Myslinski: That’s worldwide. We have about two hundred and fifty chapters (actually more than that) Two hundred fifty chapters in about 50 countries in six continents all around the world. 

Now, the actual competition itself, at the chapter level, is relatively simple. It’s usually questions and answers. The students that win at the chapter level, they are then invited to their respective national championship 

Audio from Kansas City Brain Bee 2011

You’ll have 30 seconds to answer.  If you’re correct I’ll let you know.  If not, that’ll be counted as a strike.  

Electro Convulsive Therapy is used to treat what brain disorder…

What lobe of the cerebral cortex is the hippocampus located in…

Huntington’s Chorea is characterized by lesions in what …  

What do you call brain peptides that block pain and cause sleepiness…

What do you call the chemicals that support the survival of distant groups of neurons.  Optifactors is correct.

Norbert Myslinski: And then those that win their national championship get to compete at the world championship, which is in a different city every year.

Phil Stieg: Does each level have a similar format or a different format?

Norbert Myslinski: Yes and no.  We’ve added on since it started maybe four additional components to the competition. One is the neuroanatomy practical, where the students actually go into the cadaver labs of medical schools and they are at different stations that have 20, 30 different human brains, real human brains or brain parts, and they’re asked to identify parts of the brains.  And this portion actually is comparable to the neuroanatomy exams that medical students take.   Another component is called patient diagnosis, where we have actors who sit down with each individual student individually and they converse.  And the student has to diagnose what that actor with that patient has. By listening to the patient, looking at the patient, the individual can ask three questions of the patient. The student can ask two different laboratory or clinical tests and from a long list of neurological disorders and have to decide what condition this individual has.

Phil Stieg: This is really amazing in the sense that you go from a student’s ability to memorize, ability to integrate that memorization into a clinical setting. And now you’re starting to work on their emotional IQ so that they can integrate science into society and communicate it and maybe try to affect health care policies. So you really cover the full spectrum of the human personality using neuroscience.

Norbert Myslinski: We have to keep up with the students. (laugh)

Phil Stieg: So why do you think so many students want to compete in this thing? What is it about it that they like? Do they win anything?  Do they get a big prize or…

Norbert Myslinski: They get a big trophy. That’s called the Norby Trophy. (It’s named after me.) They get a scholarship, small scholarship. They get an opportunity to work summer-long in a neuroscience laboratory with a famous neuroscientist. And it’s not just what they get. I mean, they are so interested in this science, but they do not get it in high school.  In the United States, you can’t find neuroscience at high schools.

Phil Stieg: The students that win the competition. They’re the best competitors. Have you found that they go on to actually become the best scientists?

Norbert Myslinski: We did some surveys in the past.  The vast majority of them, 67 percent said that it’s a very worthwhile experience, that it helped direct them toward science. And, you know, around 40 percent said that they went into careers where science is involved. And about 30 percent of that said that they actually went into the neuroscience field, Yes.  So so they are very, very successful.  Look at Julieanne McCall.  

She was in the United States brain when she was in high school. She got third place and she inspired her so much that she went on to her hometown in the Midwest and started another chapter.  And she went to college and started a chapter there. Her adviser went to Germany. So she followed him there and made a whole German country, a Brain Bee country. She was there. She was helping out. She was very enthusiastic.  And she was a very good role model because she was young not that old like me.

Phil Stieg: We took Dr. Myslinski’s advice and reached out to former Brain Bee competitor (and now PhD Neuroscientist) Dr. Julianne McCall.  Dr. McCall is a staff scientist in the Office of Planning and Research for the Governor of California.

Julianne, welcome.  It’s really a pleasure to talk with you. I would like you to tell me a little bit about what your experiences were with the Brain Bee.

Jullianne McCall: Oh, I could go on and on, Dr. Stieg. I first participated as a high school student myself in northeast Ohio in 2002. So almost 20 years ago now. My principal at the time knew that I was fascinated by neuroscience.  So the Brain Be was just a natural, you know, after school activity for a 17 year old in 2002.

Phil Stieg: So, tell me what that experience was like as a 13 to 19 year old. I mean, what did you have to go through to be part of this Brain Bee? 

Jullianne McCall: You know, you would hardly recognize the brain be of 18 years ago compared to what it is now. It was an exciting one for sure. But, you know, much like an academic competition rather than a time to come together as a group and learn from one another.

Phil Stieg: In terms of the competition, what did you personally find to be the most difficult portion?   

Jullianne McCall: Oh, by far it’s being asked very complicated questions from a panel of intimidating scientists. As a as a young kid, you don’t know.  You’ve never met a scientist before. And in your mind, you picture, you know, people reading textbooks over dinner and talking about philosophical intellectual questions over breakfast. So I was deadly nervous when I had to get on that stage. I loved the neuroanatomy part. I just I could have stayed in that room with the cadavers for hours.

Phil Stieg: Well, what I find amazing is when I looked at what they test you on the competition, it ranges from intelligence to memory to emotions, stress, sleep, degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, autism, addictions. I mean, what 13-year-old walks into this of being facile at answering complex questions by prominent scientists?

Jullianne McCall: You would be delightfully surprised by how many young teenagers are already into this kind of stuff. For example, the 2013 International Brain Bee. It was my first time directing the International Brain Bee, and the young man from Italy had already set up a neuroanatomy station in his garage.  He would take take animals and literally go through those dissections with a textbook open next to him. So there’s hope for the world yet.

Phil Stieg: You’re bringing back memories of both me and my cousins. We all got PhDs and some of us went on to medicine and we created our own laboratory with microscopes, dissections…  Yeah, the bug gets you very early in life, that’s for sure…

Jullianne McCall: Especially with the brain that’s, you know, with such low hanging fruit to bring people into science and the wonders we still have yet to discover

(Music up)

Phil Stieg: We’ll return to our guests in a moment.  During the break, you’ll have a chance to see what it’s like to train for your own Brain Bee. 

Phil Stieg; We continue with our conversation with Dr. Julianne McCall, former Brain Bee contestant and now a science advisor in the office of the Governor of California.   I had asked if she could tell me what originally sparked her interest in neurosciences.

Jullianne McCall: Gladly. So my kid sister was born when I was nine years old and she was diagnosed in utero with hydrocephalus. The condition was so extreme that the doctors didn’t even expect her to survive to birth.  And she is now twenty-seven years old and breaking all sorts of expectations going above and beyond what we had ever hoped and dreamed for her. She’s capable of so much love and joy and has a vivacious appreciation for nearly every day. And the magic that took place that allowed – that granted her that opportunity to experience happiness and love in the way that she does and share it with the rest of the world continues to be an inspiration. And neuroscience is a core part of that.

Phil Stieg: I find that true in many of our neurosurgical applicants. They’ve had family members that have had some neurologic disorder that they’ve overcome, and it motivated them to get involved in the science.

Jullianne McCall: Yeah, I would never wish it on my worst enemy.  But truly, it’s been the key motivating factor in my life

Interstitial – This Is Your Brain: The Guided Tour

Phil Stieg: I’d like you to think about applying what you’ve done with Brain Bee and how you’ve used neuroscience in your life to affect other people.  Are there lessons that you’ve learned that are applicable for other areas in life where we can work with teenagers to expand and get them involved in things?

Jullianne McCall: Oh, absolutely, yeah.  Teenagers, they just thrive on that social connection. I wish you could join us for an International Brain Bee. We’ve created a feeling of it being a festival, right. Where we bring them together in the same hotel for four days and they can’t stop talking to one another. They fall in love with the opportunity to connect over distances and cultures around a fascination and an excitement for science.  And so I take that model and I try to replicate it in everything I do, whether it’s organizing TEDx conferences or coordinating science policy conferences now, in my role in the governor’s Office of Planning and Research and bringing people together around public good missions. That was definitely part of the Brain Bee inspiration.

Phil Stieg: Julianne, that was fantastic. I hope that the 13-year-old is listening to this and gets motivated to follow your path.

Jullianne McCall: It would be such a privilege to know that that that’s an outcome of this interview.

Music up and under

Norbert Myslinski: But you know, it really does me good when I see these students working together and playing together and interacting and developing friendships. you know, We have like 50 different countries involved I mean, we set them up alphabetically and right next to each other. You have a young man from Iran and a young lady from Israel, and they talk together.  And I tell you, I’m saying to myself, these are the leaders of the future. And right now they are going to remember these experiences. And I’m saying that “gee, the international brain is an instrument of peace”.

Phil Stieg Dr. Norbert Myslinski, it has been an honor, a pleasure your vibrancy is palpable and what you’ve done with the brain be and the International Youth Neuroscience Association and the world impact that you’ve had is essentially immeasurable. I hope and pray for more individuals like you. And I hope that Julianne McCall continues your work in the future, since she’s much younger than both of us. 

Norbert Myslinski: (laugh) Okay Dr. Stieg! 

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