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2023 Summer US-Serbian Neuroscience Research Fellowship Kicks Off!

2023 Summer US-Serbian Neuroscience Research Fellowship
Conference call with Dr. Étienne Serbe-Kamp, who has yet to arrive. (All photos: Alex Hatch)

The Summer Fellowship of the Brain is back — with a twist! A cohort of seven STEM undergraduates from the US and Serbia will be spending the whole of July in Belgrade, Serbian capital. There, in the Center for Promotion of Science‘s lab makerspace, they’ll conduct their neuroscience research. Best of all, the resulting experiments will be published in the Serbian edition of “How Your Brain Works” this fall!

As in our earlier iterations, the fellows will learn experimental design, how to find and peruse relevant peer-reviewed literature in journal clubs, collect and analyze data, and present their work to the academic audience as well as the public.

But it’s not just labs, action potentials and papers they’ll be engrossed in. Among other ice-breaker activities at the very beginning, there was foraging for mushrooms that would readily lend themselves to action potentials recording, a 4th of July boat celebration at the local river island near the confluence of Danube and Sava, and savoring local cuisine. As it turned out, there weren’t any willing mushrooms in the nearby park on the first day. But if there’s one thing we know about scientists, it’s that they don’t give up so easily. So other parks in downtown Belgrade (and their mushrooms) had to yield!

Recording action potentials from Pink Oyster Mushrooms
Do those spikes mean she knows she’s being recorded?

The fellows are working under mentorship from our co-founders Drs. Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, our senior scientist Dr. Étienne Serbe-Kamp, senior fellow and PhD student from Caltech Dan Pollak, as well as our designer Alex Hatch.

The American team brought along some swag including a total of 50 Backyard Brains electrophysiology kits to be donated to ten makerspaces in Serbia.

Sneak Peek into Research Projects

Body Schema: Pinocchio effect / Fake Hand

Fellow: Milica Manojlovic

Ever seen your nose grow mysteriously before your eyes? Our fellow Milica is about to! Imagine closing your eyes and placing one of your elbows out in front of you. Now, as you hold your nose, something peculiar happens. With the help of a vibrating point massager, you activate a stretch receptor that tricks your body schema into believing that your arm is moving forward. But here’s the twist: the arm stays still while your nose… seems to grow!

Milica will use EMG to build on the Pinocchio illusion by trying to trick her subject’s brain into believing their body is moving in ways that aren’t really possible. Then, she’ll go on to trick herself!

Attention Schema: Measuring Attention Gaze of Eyes

Fellows: Summer Ann & Luka Caric

If you can trick your brain into believing something that is patently untrue, you can also trick it into believing that you can move things just by looking at them! Using a computer program, participants are challenged to guess the tilt at which a paper tube would topple over. But here’s the twist: the position of a face and its gaze direction play a role. When the person stares against the lean, we tip the tube a bit more, and when the stare aligns with the tilt, we tip it a bit less. Strangely enough, this effect disappears when the face is blindfolded.

Enter Summer and Luka, whose main summer pursuit will be to cross-reference this with similar experiments and determine how our perception of mechanical processes is biased by our looking at other people’s gaze.

Slime Mold: Thinking Without a Brain

Fellows: Amanda Putti & Milica Milosevic

Slime isn’t just the goo that gets slapped on your chair as part of the latest prank. It’s also a kind of fungus — in fact, the most intelligent fungus you’ll have met. As a recent study showed, single-celled slime moulds are veritable geniuses that can make incredibly complex decisions, like “moving” (that is, growing its cell wall) toward a side that potentially offers more resources. Talk about resourceful decision-making!

Our fellows Amanda and Milica will recreate this experiment, try to build on it by gathering low-frequency potential data, and pack it all into a classroom-friendly shape.

As of this writing, Amanda has already begun to grow some particularly clever slime!

Growing slime mould

Mushroom Spikes

Fellows: Tom DesRosiers & Elsa Fedrigolli

Here at Backyard Brains, we’ve recorded spikes from many a plant and animal. But what about the bizarre creatures that are neither plants no animals? As a recent study shows, some fungi exhibit pretty frantic electrical activity! Take the “pink oysters” you’ll often find growing on tree barks in warmer climates. What do these electrical signals mean? Do they serve a physiological purpose?

Our fellows Tom and Elsa will try to explore the uncharted waters of fungal biology to answer these questions. They’ll look at them from ethological perspective: do these spikes play a role in growth or spore release, or something entirely different?

Stay tuned for their own blog posts, in which they’ll update you on their progress!

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