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Brain Explorers

The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience helps the next generation of scientists investigate the body's most complex organ.

“Hi Ralph!” exclaims Jack Boyette, a rising sixth grader at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur, Ga., to the sheep brain he holds in his right hand. He and his partner, Evan O’Brien, also heading into the sixth grade this fall, then team up to use forceps to point out the different parts of Ralph the brain.


“The suculus should be right here,” said Jack, as Evan makes a check mark on the list and responds, “the gyrus should be right here.”


They were two of 32 middle school students who participated in a week-long Brain Camp, filled with activities ranging from brain dissection, to constructing neurons out of beads and performing experiments involving the senses, including optical illusions.


During one week in July, middle schoolers like Jack and Evan got the chance dig into the folds of brains while a college-age student investigated the areas of the brain involved in pain. Meanwhile, a recent high school graduate used robots to explore how neurons are involved in the mechanics of movement.


With microscopes and lab notebooks in hand, this diverse group students were part of a range of summertime activities presented by the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, headquartered at Georgia State, aimed at exciting interest in the sciences, especially the science of the body’s most complex organ.

Across the partner institutions in the CBN — which include Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Emory University, Morehouse School of Medicine, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College and Spelman College — the students are part of an educational pipeline that the center’s leaders hope will translate into the next generation of scientists who will make new discoveries and bolster America’s position as a leader in the sciences.


The programs include Brain Camp, designed for middle school students and held at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur; the Institute on Neuroscience (ION) for high school students and recent high school graduates; and the Behavioral Research Advancements in Neuroscience (BRAIN) program for college undergraduate research.


At their core, BRAIN, ION and Brain Camp — which have impacted more than 800 students over the years — bring the basics of science to students and give them experience with the basis of all research, the scientific method, which is essential to any investigation.


“One of the things the programs bring is interesting scientific research topics such as why animals fight and why they reproduce,” said H. Elliott Albers, director of the CBN and Regents’ Professor of neuroscience at Georgia State. “This inherently interesting material has a scientific foundation, so that students can learn about the fundamentals of the scientific method in a way that is fun and entertaining.


“Interacting with people who are involved in scientific research really helps students to become turned on to science,” Albers said. “This is frequently missing in K-12 education, because most teachers have not had the opportunity to engage in the excitement of hands on research.”


Lab introductions


“The more that you take part in hands-on science at this age, it will hopefully create more of a life-long interest,” said Laura Carruth, assistant professor of neuroscience at Georgia State and coordinator of the Brain Camp. “It’s a critical timepoint for when students decide whether they do or don’t like science and want to pursue it as they get older.”

“And that’s really important for girls,” Carruth explained. “There are studies which show that middle-school age girls who have positive science experiences go on to pursue science more actively than girls who don’t.”

As Athieno Ngowe, 11, picked apart the tough dura mater covering the brain, her partner, Sophie Horan, took notes.


“Well, it’s cool, but it’s kinda nasty too, and it stinks,” Sophie said. “But I might like to be a doctor one day.”


While the middle schoolers probe what makes the nervous system work, high school and college undergraduate students are delving deeper into neuroscience through lab apprenticeships at CBN member institutions. Both BRAIN and ION contain a crash course in classroom based neuroscience education, but then the students move to the laboratories and conduct mini-experiments which give them real research experience.


“Whether BRAIN fellows or ION scholars contribute to ongoing research endeavors, are given a small piece of a bigger research project, or even design and collect preliminary data on their own experimental questions, the summer research experience provides insight to the scientific process, integration into the scientific community, and ideas about careers in science,” said Kyle Frantz, associate professor of neuroscience at Georgia State and coordinator of the programs.


On the first floor of the natural science center at Georgia State, ION student Venkat Goli simulates positions a robot on the ground to simulate how the activity of neurons translates into motor control, producing different movements depending on how the neurons burst with activity — or don’t.


“It's a great initiation into neuroscience," said Georgia State Assistant Professor Gennady S. Cymbalyuk, Goli’s mentor. “You get a slice of what a typical student would go through in introductory classes, not necessarily knowing what you want to learn. But now, after getting to go into a lab and learning from an apprenticeship, you can see what you’d like to do in academic life.”


Another ION scholar, Maithreyi Shankar, from Boston, Mass., will be a freshman at the University of Southern California this fall. She worked in a lab at Emory University, and is studying learning and memory involving fruit flies.


“I’ve gotten so much out of the experience,” Maithreyi said. “What I’m doing matters, and I’ve learned a lot about procedures and conduct in the lab.”


Shamaal Blair, a student at Miller Grove High School in DeKalb County, worked on a behavioral research project at Spelman College, exploring how different population densities of red flower beetles affect reproductive traits.


“I think the program is awesome because I get a chance to work in the lab, because in my high school, we don't get that opportunity,” she said.


Going further in academic life, the BRAIN program puts undergraduate students from different colleges and universities from around the nation into lab apprenticeships at CBN institution labs. At Georgia State University, Nina Waldron, a sophomore at Smith College in Massachusetts, is looking at part of the brain involved in the development of morphine tolerance.


“I've been able to explore a little bit of everything,” Waldron said. “It’s really amazing to be an apprentice. Though I've designed an experiment in class, I haven't actually worked in a lab before, like I'm doing now.”


The science education activities sponsored by the CBN were funded through grants from the National Science Foundation and the Georgia Research Alliance.

Story and photo:

Jeremy Craig

Georgia State University

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