Guest post by Julie Depenbrock
Norbert Myslinski, the 2016 Science Educator of the Year, has made a career as an advocate for neuroscience.
“It’s not just for the scientists and the people with the brain disorders,” said Myslinski, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “You can use neuroscience to help you become a better teacher. You can use neuroscience to help you become a better parent.”
And it’s important, he said, to begin neuroscience education early—in high school.
“In the United States, neuroscience is not a staple of high schools,” Myslinski said. “Students have to go outside of the regular curriculum to really study it.”
He tries to motivate young men and women to do just that.
In 1998, Myslinski started a neuroscience competition for teenagers known as the Brain Bee to get young people excited about the field.
“If you don’t have the people in there—good people to do the research—it’s not going to go that far,” Myslinski said of finding cures for brain disorders.
The Brain Bee, which began as a state competition in Maryland, has grown to 180 chapters in 50 countries and six continents.
Each year, the international championship is held in a different city around the world. Last summer, it was in Copenhagen, hosted by the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies.
Karina Bao, the U.S. winner, competed in a grueling five-part championship series to represent the United States in Copenhagen.
First, there was the neural anatomy lab practical. Students navigated 25 stations—each with a fresh human brain—to identify parts with pins stuck in them.
Then, there were MRI analyses and patient diagnoses, in which students had five minutes to diagnose a patient actor with a neurological brain disorder.
The next phases were a neurohistology, or study of the brain at a microscopic level, a written test and finally a traditional question-and-answer.
“A lot of the things in the higher-up competitions are things that second-year medical students do,” Myslinski said.
From 1999 to 2007, the Brain Bee was solely a competition between the United States and Canada. In 2008, it was reorganized and expanded to include countries outside North America.
“As it’s gotten more worldwide, the United States has been winning less and less,” Myslinski said.
Bao, who placed fifth for the U.S. in the international competition, is also a member of the International Youth Neuroscience Association, or IYNA.
IYNA began as a challenge from Myslinski to the 57 chapter winners who traveled to Maryland for the American championship.
By the end of the three-day competition, Myslinski said, the students already had a website, a mission statement, and a board of directors.
The students have since created six issues of their own nearly 50-page scientific journal.
“Originally, it was the YNCA [Youth Neuroscience Clubs of America] because it was just in the United States, but after the International Brain Bee it became international,” Bao said. “We have about 12 countries represented now.”
Myslinski is inspired by the students’ entrepeneurship, but concerned that the Brain Bee itself may be on its last legs.
It’s an expensive competition to put on—and to attend.
As of two years ago, Myslinski said, the average U.S. Brain Bee chapter spent $1,800 (including travel and hotel costs for competitor and chaperone.)
“We don’t have much money,” Myslinski said. “There’s no big company sponsoring this. No big university. No big grant from the U.S. government. We do it by the seat of our pants.”
Each chapter is responsible for funding their own program and each nation is responsible for funding theirs, meaning poorer countries are often left out of competition at the international level.
When asked why he became a neuroscientist, Myslinski said he was motivated by both passion and compassion.
“I had a passion, interest, fascination for the human brain and all its potential and future directions and so forth,” he said. “But it’s also compassion—compassion for my fellow man, especially those who have brain disorders.”
Many members of Myslinski’s family have been afflicted with such disorders. His father had Guillain-Barre syndrome and died of a stroke. His brother suffers from a spinal cord injury. He has cousins who are victims of multiple sclerosis, autism, epilepsy, and drug addiction.
“Even my mom. My mom lives with Alzheimer’s disease,” Myslinski said. “So, you know, brain disorders were all around me and I just felt we have to do something about this.”
“I think it’s a very hopeful field,” he added.
Myslinski was chosen as Science Educator of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience in early November. At the University of Maryland, Myslinski is an associate professor in the department of neural and pain science in the dental school.
Why the dental school?
“Did you ever have a toothache?” he said. “The pain is in the brain.”
Photo: The 2016 International Brain Bee winners: Ana Ghenciulescu of Romania (center) placed first. Nooran AbuMazen of Canada (left) took second and Matthew Fulton of New Zealand (right) took third. (Courtesy of Norbert Myslinski)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.