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Can Neuroscience Help You Fence Better? Middle-School Scientist Wins State Science Fair Using SpikerBox

can neuroscience help you fence better
Supriya and Sujit Nair establishing a new fencing technique: Neurofencing

Every fencer will hear it countless times: warm-ups are a MUST. Do them and they’ll bump up your performance. Skip them and you may end up hurting yourself.

But not every fencer will ask why! Supriya Nair, a busy sixth-grader from Redmond, WA, decided to conduct an experiment and find out what the correlation is between exercise and performance in her favorite sport. Where other people see a self-evident truth that doesn’t need any questioning, this scientifically-minded middle-schooler saw a hypothesis that she can poke through to test it, quantify it, and prove it!

And what better way to do that than to: 

  1. sport a set of electrodes of a Neuron SpikerBox to capture an EMG signal from her right hand and right leg as she lunges,
  2. measure her muscles’ reaction time from rest to touche in controlled circumstances, with and without 15-minute warm-ups, and compare the findings.

The results came in and won her the First Place Trophy at the annual Washington State Science and Engineering Fair and a nomination for this year’s Broadcom Masters, STEM competition for the nation’s top talented middle-schoolers!

Neurofencing: How It All Began

I’d always hear it from coaches that I needed to do pre-bout exercise. But there was no quantitative data that would support it, just qualitative. And frankly, I was not very disciplined in warm-ups,” Supriya told us in a Zoom interview. That’s how she came up with the idea to eavesdrop on her muscles’ electrical activity using the SpikerBox her dad got her, and measure it to see whether it adds up to the hypothesis. And boom! Pre-bout exercise lasting only 15 minutes can improve a fencer’s performance by a whopping 15%, she discovered.

More warm-ups for her, now that she has it in writing!

Supriya’s little brother Sujit, a resourceful fourth-grader who is into astrophysics, acted as one of her test subjects and helped her set up the experiment.

But how does a middle-schooler go from defining a problem to positing a hypothesis, to designing and conducting an experiment?

Supriya, who wants to be a neurologist when she grows up, got into neuroscience last year when she suddenly found herself with lots of time on her hands during distance learning. So this 12-year-old jumped straight into university-level neuroscience MOOCs from Unis of Harvard, Chicago, Emory and Duke.

Supriya Nair Applying Neuroscience to Assess Fatigue and Optimize Performance for Young Fencers - Can Neuroscience Help You Fence Better?
Slide from Supriya’s award-winning work titled “Applying Neuroscience to Assess Fatigue and Optimize Performance for Young Fencers”

But these courses and laurels are just the beginning of Supriya’s journey through the majestic world of action potentials. She and her brother are getting a new experiment underway to complement the former and examine what the muscles, brain AND heart do when you fence.

Now that we saw what happens at a muscular scale when you fence, we want to see how busy the brain is. This time, we’ll work with flèche, which is a fencing move where you explode out and run into your opponent. But heart needs to be added into the equation too because if it doesn’t work properly, our muscles will get tired and experience peripheral fatigue. Our goal is to correlate these three – brain, heart and muscles – and see what links them together in fencing.

(We’re not making this up – that’s really how she talks!)

Fingers crossed for Supriya and Sujit! We’ll revisit them in June to see what new scientific insights they can share with us. Stay tuned!


Lifelong Learners Perform Neuroscience Experiments!

Seeing her EMG signal for the first time!

Ph.D. student and friend of Backyard Brains, Brinnae Bent of Duke University, recently hosted a class for seniors participating in the “Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke (OLLI at Duke).” With help from some colleagues at North Carolina State University, she put on an afternoon workshop in Electrophysiology for these lifelong learners.

From its website, “OLLI at Duke offers a wide array of courses in literature, history, religion, philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, performing arts, art and architecture, economics, finance, computers and lifestyle issues.”

Participants in the Osher class performed e-phys experiments using our Muscle SpikerShield Bundles! The participants were excited to see their very own EMG signals and to test their strength against the LED array on the SpikerShield. And, as it often does, discussion turned towards the implications of the technology and the importance of bringing this education to more people.

Discussing and Understanding Principles of Electrophysiology

We’re always excited to see what our friends and colleagues are doing with our kits! If you ever feel inspired to do some outreach of your own, please feel free to send us some photos and a brief description of the experience and we’ll be sure to include it on our site!

Testing their Strength!