Rockefeller’s Summer Neuroscience Program:
Graduate Students share their excitement for Neuroscience with teens from all over NYC
The Summer Neuroscience Program (SNP) is self-described as “a two-week course aimed at introducing talented and enthusiastic high school students to the brain,” but could more affectionately be described as summer neuroscience camp!
Students learn about the history of neuroscience, modern trends and research, participate in Journal Clubs, prepare presentations, and, in culmination, perform a DIY research project where students plan, execute, and present the results of their very own inquiry. Many of the students perform experiments using our Neuron SpikerBoxes!
Annie Handler, one of the program’s co-directors, is a friend of Backyard Brains and recently shared some details with us about her background and about the Summer Neuroscience Program. Below are her words, and within them, we have portraits of talented, enthusiastic neuroscientists, motivated high school students, and fantastic examples of DIY neuroscience done right!
Introducing Students to Neuroscience
In its first year, SNP had eight high school students in the program –– this year we had 350 applications for the program and accepted 16 students. Despite the strong interest in the program, we feel a small classroom size is most effective at cultivating self-confidence and creativity among students who have had minimal exposure to science outside of the classroom setting. This environment encourages students to ask/answer questions in a very intimate setting where they feel comfortable thinking outside the box.
Every year it inspires me that all the students we accept to the program show up on the first day and continue to show up day after day. Often, the feedback we get from students relates to how much they enjoyed getting to meet and make friends with other students who share a similar passion for science and the brain. We don’t really expect the students to retain or memorize all the facts they learned during the program –– instead, we hope (and often hear in response!) that the students walk away from the program with the following:
- greater confidence in their critical thinking skills,
- awareness that, if they want to, they too can be a scientist
- new, like-minded friends!
High school science courses focus mostly on the known aspects of biology, physics, and math. This structure can often leave students with the impression that there are few questions left to ask in science –– but the reality is that there are countless mysteries left to be discovered. In fact, students will often ask a question about how the brain works or how we perceive something that stumps all of the directors. These moments are central to SNP because it provides the opportunity to show students that there are still many important questions left to be asked and that it’s OK to not know all the answers – even if you are a graduate student or a professor!
Of course, when we get stumped, we start digging for answers, and if we can’t find any solid research on the question, the students are left feeling inspired that they came up with a question about the brain that no one has a good answer for yet!
When we do introductions with the students, I like to share my own experience and trajectory into neuroscience research. I grew up with dyslexia and played piano from an early age. Consequently, I was always interested in how we perceive the world around us –– from reading a book to hearing a piece of music, it was frustrating but fascinating as I excelled in some ways, but struggled in others, relative to other kids my age. Obviously, our brain is central to this process. While the wiring of our peripheral sensory circuits is often stereotyped from person to person, ensuring high-fidelity encoding of our environment, how I perceive the world is quite different from how you perceive the world due to differences in our brain circuitry/processing and due to how our experiences have shaped our brains in different ways.
This idea of the differences in perception across animals and people got me hooked on thinking more deeply about neuroscience. I went to Amherst College and majored in Neuroscience and Music Composition. Now, in graduate school, I continue to study how our experience shapes our perception of the world by using the simple nervous system of Drosophila Melanogaster (Fruit flies!). Using Drosophila, I am studying how learning changes the function of neural circuits to drive adaptive changes in animal behavior.
I got involved with SNP in 2014 as a volunteer mentor and in 2016 I became a co-director of the program. The three-fold format of the program –– lecture, journal club, and hands-on experimental design –– appealed to me, and I felt like it was a great opportunity to help students gain an appreciation for the scientific process. On top of helping students learn to think like a scientist, it also offered me the opportunity to practice my science communication skills –– which I think are critical for all scientists to develop! It also helped me deepen my own understanding of neuroscience – we learn so much through teaching, and I have a much greater appreciation now for the elegance of the Action Potential as I’ve had to dive deep into the fundamentals as my students keep posing me thoughtful questions.
During the second week of the program, students design and carry out their own experiments to study the nervous system of insects (crickets or cockroaches) inspired by what they learned in the first week of lectures. The lectures in the first week cover the basics of neuroscience –– what is a neuron, how does an action potential work, and the principles of the different sensory systems). Students are free to design behavioral experiments or electrophysiology experiments using the SpikerBoxes or can opt to do a combination of the two.
This year, two students studied the effect of negative associative conditioning on motor neuron activity in crickets. To do this, students paired a color with a negative stimulus of shaking the cricket. They then measured the neural activity evoked by the conditioned color in motor neurons and compared the activity to a control cricket with no conditioning experience. The students hypothesized that negative reinforcement would cause the crickets to want to escape the conditioned color and this would lead to more neural activity in the motor neurons when the crickets were presented with the conditioned color. I found this experiment incredibly creative and highly advanced for high school students. The desire to link experience with neurophysiology and behavior is a cornerstone of the most advanced research conducted at R1 institutes.
Another group of students studied how chemicals –– like neurotransmitters and toxins –– alter the firing rate and waveform of action potentials in the cricket. They used GABA, dopamine, and tetrodotoxin (I’ll note that all of these chemicals were handled by the graduate student mentors and the high school students were not allowed to touch the chemicals or inject the chemicals into the crickets). The students researched the site of action of these different chemicals and used their research to explain the effects they observed in the firing properties of the motor neurons of the cricket. Other memorable projects using SpikerBoxes have examined the effects of caffeine and salinity on firing rate.
What’s next for an SNP student?
A number of SNP alumni pursue STEM-related majors in college. One example is a former SNP student named Jackson R. who went on to major in neuroscience at SUNY Binghamton and currently works as a research technician in the same lab I work in (Vanessa Ruta’s Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior) –– he is an author on this recent paper from the lab. He is in the process of deciding between going to medical school or graduate school to study neuroscience.
Additionally, a number of SNP alumni successfully apply for more advanced STEM-related research programs including the Summer Science Research Program at Rockefeller University. This is a 7-week program where students work in a lab at Rockefeller on an original research question. The fact that students can come into SNP with absolutely no science experience and gain enough experience to end up working in a competitive research lab at Rockefeller is another huge measure of success that we use for our program!
Required Kit: Neuron SpikerBox / Pro
The SpikerBoxes used by the SNP are circa 2012… and it’s awesome and rewarding to see them still supporting student neuroscience several years later! (They continue to work with new phones too, even with the new iPhone X!)
We’ve made some upgrades in the past 6 years though – if you want to perform your own invertebrate physiology experiments with your students, check out the kits on our Store where you can learn about the tools and the labs they support! The Neuron SpikerBox and Neuron SpikerBox Pro are here to serve your DIY Neurosci Needs!