Date February 28, 2023
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Brown Brain Bee brings brain science to local high schoolers

The annual neuroscience trivia competition hosted at Brown invites Rhode Island students to explore the wonders of the brain to inspire the next generation of scientists and researchers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — School may have been out for February vacation, but a group of Providence-area high school students hit the books during the winter break to study all aspects of the brain and nervous system. Their charge? To win the 2023 Brown Brain Bee, a trivia competition organized by students at Brown and hosted on the University campus to encourage local high schoolers’ interest in neuroscience.

After six months of after-school and weekend neuroscience classes at Brown, nearly a dozen final teen competitors put their scientific knowledge to the test in the state Brain Bee contest held late in February in Smith-Buonanno Hall.

The weekly courses — offered free to Rhode Island students ages 13 to 19 and provided both virtually and in-person on the College Hill campus — were led by Brown student volunteers, who are predominantly undergraduates concentrating in pre-med or neuroscience. To prepare students for the regional Brain Bee competition, classes reviewed “Brain Facts,” a book published by the Society for Neuroscience that addresses such topics as learning and memory, sleep, addiction, movement and neurological disorders.

Henry Lech, a sophomore at Pilgrim High School in Warwick, said the Brown Brain Bee program presents an opportunity to study a subject rarely taught in-depth at the high school level. While he’s early in exploring potential careers in the medical field, Lech’s curiosity for neuroscience was piqued after meeting a neurologist while volunteering at Rhode Island Hospital.

“I joined the Brown Brain Bee because I’m trying to expand my interests in medicine and learn about different fields like neurology,” Lech said. “It allowed me to look into an area that I might never have the opportunity to learn about.”

Brown students design and teach the curriculum each year to make brain science fun, educational and accessible. Most feel passionate about sharing their love for neuroscience with younger students, said Jacqueline Cho, a Brown undergraduate who serves as high school coordinator for the program, successfully recruiting more than 50 students representing 11 public schools for this year’s program.

“It’s a great way to interact with other young people with similar interests,” Cho said. “As undergraduates, we’re all a few years ahead of them, so we can shed light on the possible paths to studying neuroscience or working in the field.”

Helping young students understand the possibilities of different careers in the sciences is important, said John Stein, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Brown who served as a host and judge for the 2023 Brown Brain Bee.

“A big part of the program is having these high school students see young scientists here at Brown that only a few years ago were sitting in the same chair they’re sitting in now,” Stein said.

The Brain Bee is a nationwide program, and until the Brown Brain Bee was established in 2013 by University students, Rhode Island was not home to a regional qualifying event. The bee includes three rounds of 10 multi-choice questions. Contestants have 20 seconds to write their answers on small whiteboards while judges capture and certify correct answers and tally points for each participant. The first-place winner of the Brown Brain Bee wins $200 and advances to the National Brain Bee — this year’s will be held in April at the University of California, Irvine.

While many vied for the title, it was Finan Gammell, a sophomore at East Greenwich High School, who was named the 2023 Brown Brain Bee champion. The highschool student dedicated hours each day during the winter recess to study brain facts in preparation for the competition. He described his experience with the neuroscience program as “eye-opening.” 

Brown Brain Bee winner
2023 Brown Brain Bee Champion Finan Gammell with Brown faculty member John Stein.

“I didn’t realize I had a knack for neuroscience until now,” Gammell said. 

Though primed with new knowledge, some students, including Kaylyn Woods, a ninth-grader at William M. Davies Career and Technical High School, opted to skip the culminating quiz event this year. But the aspiring neurosurgeon was still eager to join the program to deepen her knowledge and excitement for the field. The Central Falls resident has self-studied brain science for two years, watching brain dissection videos online and referencing a human-brain anatomical model her parents gave her in December.

“The more that I learned through the program, the more I was interested in taking that information further,” Woods said. “The Brown Brain Bee made me want to focus deeper on learning the different parts of the brain and how they work.”

Woods is among a portion of the students who attended the program exclusively online and said the hybrid format for this year’s program made it possible for her to participate.

“I found the virtual classes super helpful,” she said. “With the commute to campus, I wouldn’t have been able to have the opportunity to participate, and I’m so glad I did because I think this is an opportunity that could take me really far in helping me prepare for my future.”

The competition is one of many outreach activities planned this winter by students, faculty and staff at Brown to make brain science fun and educational for students and families in the greater Providence area. In the weeks leading up to Brain Week Rhode Island — which is organized by the Providence-based national research advocacy organization, Cure Alliance for Mental Illness — Brown graduate students will help host “BRAINY Visits” in middle and high school classrooms; and the Brown Brain Bee, Brain Week Rhode Island, and Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science will host the 2023 Brown Brain Fair on Saturday, March 18, inviting residents, families and educators to delve into the wonders of the brain through mini-lectures, interactive stations, art projects and games.