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Summer Neuroscience Camp Empowers NYC Teens!

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:

  1. greater confidence in their critical thinking skills,
  2. awareness that, if they want to, they too can be a scientist
  3. 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!

About Annie

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.

The Projects

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!

BYB World Tour IV

Hello my friends,

This is the 4th edition of the Backyard Brains World Tour. Just a short reminder: my name is Etienne ‘ÉT’ Serbe and I’m currently travelling in South America to spread the word of Neuroscience. After nearly 20 presentations, workshops, or demonstrations of Neuroscience basics in Brasil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Peru, I found my way all the way up to Bucaramanga, Colombia. Since my last post, where I was summarizing my stay in Patagonia, I visited Tim in Santiago de Chile and, afterwards, experienced some adventurous weeks trying to find my way up North along the Pacific coast. It started pretty relaxing spending days crossing the Atacama desert where the BYB equipment served as great entertainment for the hitchhikers on the road.

Tag Team Presentation with Tim @ UDLA Maipú

Hitchhiker´s Guide to Neuroscience

Things started getting problematic when I arrived at the Peruvian border. I got the bad news that my vehicle wasn’t registered while leaving the country in 2013. After several days at customer services at different borders I was told that the police is allowed to take away ‘Brunhilde’ when entering Peru. Consequently I had either to leave behind my beloved Kombi or to turn around to the South. Having already planned my visits in Lima and Chiclayo, I decided to park my car in the Peruvian jungle and to return to the backpacker life.

In Lima I was invited by David Chaupis to give a workshop in Henri Chispe’s cultural center ‘El Paradero’. At the same time this was the inauguration of the El Paradero laboratory, an open access space that enables scientists to give classes, presentations, and workshops. With the open laboratory ‘El Paradero’ gives scientists a platform to share their passion the same way as musicians can give concerts or artists can hold exhibitions. This mixture of professions leads to an extremely creative atmosphere which makes it possible to see the world from different perspectives.  

After a short introduction about action potentials, neuroprosthetics, brain waves and how the BYB equipment works, the participants could take their time to discover by their own the broad application spectrum of the DIY experimental devices. I would like to thank the whole ‘El Paradero’ team for their hospitality. Giving me insights to the Limean life and their function as a cultural center was very inspiring and we’ll see each other again.

My next stop was the city of friendship, Chiclayo, where I visited my friend Marlon Suarez with whom I studied Biology in Munich. With his help I was able to share my NeuroTour at the Universidad Nacional Pedro Ruiz Gallo (hosted by Prof. Pedro Chimoy) and the Universidad de Cajamarca. Once again, I was welcomed with open arms and experienced where Chiclayo got its nickname from. Sharing with the Peruvian costeños, I learned a lot about their culture, traditions and dances. Thanks a lot for everything.  

Spending the days in the Peruvian far North I once again realized how advantageous it would be for remote areas to have access to low-cost experimental science devices. Not only for educational purposes but also their potential use for hospitals and doctors in the countryside.

Moving on to Ecuador my worst case scenario happened as my laptop broke down. I had to skip the planned NeuroTour stop Quito and travelled to Bogotá, where I unsuccessfully tried to get my laptop repaired. In Colombia a chain of lucky coincidences brought me to William Omar Contreras Lopez (Young Neurosurgeon of the year 2015). He invited me to Bucaramanga where I could present my NeuroTour at the Simposio Regional de Neurociencia that was held on the development of new technologies in Neuroscience. Thanks for the invitation, which made it possible to share my experiences with young motivated scientists (click here or here for video) and might be the start of future collaborations using the BYB equipment as Brain-Computer and/or Human-Machine Interfaces.

After nearly 15,000km travelling in South America I decided to slowly plan route to Europe. I will return to Lima for two weeks and then visit Machu Picchu with my mom. After that I will try to ship ‘Brunhilde’ down the Amazon and across the Atlantic Ocean. I am happy for any advice or help. Luckily my BYB equipment is still working, so don’t worry, this is not the end of the BYB World Tour.

Love and Kisses. ÉT

Tech Trek Success!

This past Friday, Backyard Brains held an Open House as a part of this year’s Ann Arbor Tech Trek! Dozens of local tech companies had their doors open to the public that evening and we, like our friends around town, had people streaming in from open to close!

Greg Gage on the Tech Talk Stage. Photo Credit Vanya P.

The day began with “Tech Talks” at the Michigan Theater, where our very own Dr. Greg Gage gave the Backyard Brains talk. Stimulating both thought and muscle, Greg gave an intro to neuroscience lesson and demonstrated principles of electrophysiology with the Human to Human Interface. He then explained the importance of neuroscience education and Backyard Brains’ mission, stating that “Backyard Brains exists because people deserve an opportunity to learn about neuroscience, not just in a book, but by performing real experiments.”

The Tech Talks were a hit, and very shortly after, the open houses began. For four hours straight we were packed with people interested in learning about Backyard Brains and neuroscience! We demonstrated the SpikerBox, the Human to Human Interface, the Muscle SpikerBox, and even the PlantShield! It was a day of education, outreach, and new connections.

There were parents with their children who were excited to learn, area educators and physicians who were intrigued by the potential of our kits, and otherwise total strangers to neuroscience who walked away with a new appreciation for the field!

We met a few longtime fans and hopefully made many new ones!