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High Schooler Becomes Educator: Young Fencer’s Neuro-Revolution Goes International

High schooler brings neuroscience to a fencing tournament in Paris.
Neurofencing in Paris. (All photos Supriya Nair)

[Updated February 2024]

There’s one thing that beats inspiring kids to take up neuroscience: Watching them not only catch the spark but pass it along! High schooler Supriya Nair is our case in point. Through scientific outreach using our SpikerBox, she has already ignited the interest of hundreds of her peers who got to see and feel the power of action potentials for the first time.

Her latest outreach triumph happened just this month at the 2024 Marathon Foils Tournament in Paris! There, she sparked the NeuroRevolution in dozens of young fencers from France, Italy, Germany, UK and other parts of the globe.

The reception in Paris was warm, and there was quite a lot to be learned too. “Most of my fellow fencers at the event were impressed with the data behind the adage that warming up is good,” Supriya tells us. “When we discussed a reduction of over 50 milliseconds in a 6ft lunge, there was a lot of excitement and cheering. I was humbled and really appreciated their time, everyone of the fencers from these countries were friendly, receptive and welcoming.”

Neuroscience workshop on a fencing tournament in Paris

The young neurofencer thus kick-started a string of international appearances where she is to empower fellow athletes to take up science and use it to level up their performance on the piste. And it’s not just fencers who may get interested in neuroscience. It’s also the other way round, as she’s about to prove in her next workshop in July, on the sidelines of Japan’s biggest annual neuroscience conference Neuro2024!

She has conquered much of America too, conducting upwards of 15 neurofencing workshops in California, Oregon, Arizona, Minnesota and at the SfN 2023 in Washington, D.C., where we met her in person.

Neurofencing at SfN 2023: High Schooler Becomes Educator
Supriya Nair with BYB co-founders Tim Marzullo and Greg Gage at SfN 2023

Quite a meeting it was, and not just because we love cake! It was the annual Society for Neuroscience conference with over 25,000 attendees where she got to present her neurofencing poster in front of PhDs and postdocs.

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Biohybrids to the Rescue: (R)evolution of the Cyborg Cockroach

Robot cockroach
Photo Credit: P. T. Tran-Ngoc et al. (2013)

The concept has been around for over a decade: Robotic cockroaches toting Bluetooth-powered backpacks that can make them move where you need them to move. As creators of our own cyborg roach, we’ve also had a say in it. Which makes us all the happier to observe that the idea has caught on and is getting new shape!

Earlier this year, a group of scientists led by Hirotaka Sato from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University managed to fit a cockroach backpack with an infrared camera and a little processor. The reason? These devices can turn the bug into an efficient detector of living things. The mission? A roach so decked out can squiggle its way through rubble in disaster zones and discover survivors where dogs or even your average-sized robot would be likely to fail. Assemble a contingent of hundreds or even thousands of these swift and agile robotic roaches, and you could make an enormous difference in areas that would otherwise have been impossible to reach.

To be sure, much improvement and tweaking is still needed before squads of rescue bugs embark on their first heroic mission. The engineering journey has been arduous too. At first, Sato and his team were only able to remotely direct the cockroach left and right, just like we do with our RoboRoach. But then they developed a navigation algorithm that rendered the roach’s movement autonomous, as published in May this year in Advanced Intelligent Systems. With more testing and honing ahead, the whole rig will get dependable enough in 3-5 years from now, the team expect.

Another thing that they did better is coming up with a less invasive way to connect with the nervous system of the bug without operating on it. Instead of the wires that they (and we) used to implant into the antennae, they designed wearable sleeves that you can just slide onto the antennae and attach them with hydrogel. In other improvements, the rescue bug carries an acceleration electrode on its belly. This makes it possible to control its speed too, whereas our RoboRoach backpack could only steer its wearer left or right.

A Short History of the Cyborg Roach

For Sato, this was not a first venture into the world of biobots. His work “Cyborg beetles: The remote radio control of insect flight” pioneered the concept even in 2009.

We joined in the by launching our pilot of the RoboRoach the following year already. It’s a lo-fi yet powerful tool aligned with our mission to make neuroscience available to everyone. A whole host of other scientists have also been on it since, with more or less success.

Backyard Brains RoboRoach in action

Even though we primarily designed our RoboRoach for the college classroom, it’s always been open-ended like all of our kits. The backpack that we built isn’t just a receiver. Through the roach’s antennae, it sends a small pulse akin to the sensation the roach gets when it detects potential danger. This pulse triggers the flight response, making the roach instantaneously change its direction in order to flee. In effect, the technology taps into the insect’s natural escape mechanism that helps it stay safe in the big world of predators, from lizards to roach-averse humans. But it also hopes to employ this instinct by packing electrodes into the tiny yet sturdy body that can easily slip through cracks and tunnels to transmit loads of data back onto the surface.

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5 Brain Awareness Week Ideas (Apply Now to Get up to $1,250 in Grants!)

Brain Awareness Week Ideas

Second week of March is always a special time of year for brain buffs. That is when educators from around the world join in for neuroscience outreach in schools and local communities!

Money’s always scarce, but your organization doesn’t have to tap into its own funds. If you write up and submit a proposal within the next couple of weeks (through October 31), you may get up to $1,250 to fund your Brain Awareness Week (BAW) activities for next March. This year, the IBRO/Dana Foundation Grants Program was expanded by 60%, so your chances of winning are bigger than ever!

But where to begin? You don’t need to break your head over activity ideas. We have a lot of wildly popular, effective and customizable hands-on experiments that have already made many an appearance during previous BAWs. Or, if you prefer something new, you can always scour our blog for inspiration from our fellows and interns! All of our experiments were designed to be conducted in makeshift labs, classrooms or public spaces. Being attractive and appealing whether you’re reaching out to middle-schoolers, college students or the general public, they all stand for democratization of neuroscience.

But what if you can’t make the second week of March? No worries. You’re not in any way required to stick with the exact BAW dates (March 11-17, 2024), nor will it affect your chances of getting awarded. Do it whenever you want, as long as you use the official Brain Awareness Week branding.

5 Brain Awareness Week BYB Classics

The foremost reason why these experiments strike a chord with so many people is that they break down very complex and sophisticated concepts in a way that looks and feels lo-fi enough not to intimidate anyone. Being featured on TED doesn’t do them a disservice either!

Another reason why we chose them is that they don’t take a lot of time or equipment.

1. BAW All-Time Favorite: Human-Human Interface

Required: Human-Human Interface + Guide

What does it take to achieve control over another person’s arm so that it moves because you wanted it to move? In its essence, this is an experiment in advanced neuroprosthetics that’s cooked up for audiences as young as 5th grade!

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