High schoolers compete in 'Brain Olympics'

About two dozen high school students from 23 countries donned their white lab coats, strapped on their blue and red satchels and took final looks at their science books Thursday for what has been called “the brain Olympics.”

“The ultimate goal of all of this is to help treat and find cures for brain disorders,” said Dr. Norbert Myslinski, who founded the International Brain Bee in 1999. “We do that by inspiring and motivating these young men and women to see careers in the brain sciences."

The two-day International Brain Bee, which began Friday, tests the students’ neuroscience knowledge on topics spanning from functions of the brain, such as emotions and vision, to dysfunctions like Parkinson’s disease and stroke.

Myslinski, neuroscientist and professor at the University of Maryland for the past 40 years, said the Bee started with 12 student chapters across the United States and Canada. Today, More than 150 chapters span 30 countries and six continents.

Held this year in conjunction with the American Psychological Association convention, the bee focuses on high school students with a hope of igniting a passion for science even before they get to college, Myslinski said.

To earn a trip to Washington this year, the competitors passed through local and national contests in their home countries. Their brain workout regimen included hours of studying on top of their regular academic classes.

For 17-year-old Samuel Pinches, representing Wales, it was his first trip to the United States. He says he studied four hours a day for the competition once school got out for the summer, up from one hour daily during the school year. In addition to the textbook recommended by the International Brain Bee staff, he scoured additional textbooks, Internet resources and even picked the brain of a local neurologist.

In addition to the traditional question and answer format of many academic bees, the students also go through practical examination levels.

Pinches said he was most looking forward to the “neuro-anatomy practical,” which asks competitors to identify parts of real brains and describe their functions. Other tasks include diagnosing actors displaying symptoms of neurological diseases.

The winner of the competition will receive scholarship money and research experience with a top neuroscience facility in the United States or in their home country.

And let’s not forget about the bragging rights that come with a trophy proudly displayed for a full year at the champion’s high school. Last year, the competition, held in Austria, was won by Australian Jackson Huang, the second consecutive win for Australia, which also dominated 2014's championship.

Pinches says this weekend is about more than charts and diagrams; it connects future scientists across the world.

“I just thought what a fantastic opportunity to meet people on an international level who share my interests and glean some perspective into what is going on in their respective countries,” Pinches said.

The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Caroline Cataldo, a graduate student from North Andover, Mass., covers education.