The three finalists at the New Mexico Brain Bee
By El Webb

Clever Contender

Albuquerque High School Student Wins UNM Health Sciences-Hosted New Mexico Brain Bee

Eighteen high school students from around the state competed in the 10th annual New Mexico Brain Bee on Saturday, March 18, but only one will move on to the national competition.

The Brain Bee, which is based on the Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Facts publication and covers material from neuroanatomy to brain diseases, is part of a worldwide network of events. The New Mexico competition was held at Pete & Nancy Domenici Hall on the The University of New Mexico Health Sciences campus.

National winners go on to compete against winners from other countries. This year’s national competition will be held at the University of California, Irvine, and the international event will be held in Paris.

“From the first contest, we’ve always designed it so that if you know a ton about neuroscience or if you know nothing about neuroscience, you can come and have a fun day,” said Jonathan Brigman, PhD, Regents’ Lecturer and associate professor in the UNM Department of Neurosciences.

“It’s much more about these students seeing and talking to these young scientists, learning about biomedical and neuroscience research, and learning how to get there.”

The Brain Bee – which was hosted by The UNM Department of Neurosciences, the Health Sciences Office for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, the School of Medicine’s Research Education Office, and UNM’s Society for Neuroscience chapter – provided an opportunity for students to get guided tours of some of the neuroscience research labs.

“This is hugely impactful for students, because they’re able to seriously think about a career path they may have never known about,” said event organizer Nicole Maphis, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Neurosciences.

The high school students were able to speak directly with graduate students about their neuroscience-related research topics and were also given an educational lecture on state-of-the-art non-invasive neuroimaging techniques, such as electroencephalography and functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

“It’s really such a unique opportunity for these high school students,” Maphis said. “It gives them a glimpse into what the life of a scientist is like.”

After a written short-answer test and five rounds of five questions for the Brain Bee portions of the competition, the top three competitors – 17-year-old Manas “Mo” Kandath from Eldorado High School, 15-year-old Kathleen McCargar from Amy Biehl High School, and 15-year-old Arjun Ganesh from Albuquerque Academy – participated in a spelling bee-style competition on stage.

At the end, ­­­­Kandath was victorious.

I had an absolutely amazing time. I appreciated how the coordinators put an emphasis on learning and immersion, not competing
Manas Kandath, Winner of the 2023 New Mexico Brain Bee

“I had an absolutely amazing time,” Kandath said. “I appreciated how the coordinators put an emphasis on learning and immersion, not competing.”

And that emphasis was intentional. Maphis said the annual event is designed to encourage more high school students to become interested in neuroscience. The competition part of the event itself is a footnote.

“The main goal of the day is for the students to have a fun time, learn a bit more about science and experience neuroscience in a new way,” she said.

As far as preparing for the New Mexico Brain Bee, Kandath said he’s been especially interested in neuroscience for the past couple of years, and that his own research into the subject was crucial to his success in the competition.

“Being from New Mexico, I’ve had few opportunities to explore neuroscience. This event was one of those few opportunities, from seeing real brain tissue to talking to researchers and exploring their work,” he said. “The coordinators and volunteers were amazing. They were extremely helpful and seemed genuinely interested in getting us involved in the neuroscience community.”

To prepare for the national competition, Kandath said he will be studying the Brain Facts material and enlisting some friends to assist him with studying for the exam’s more interactive sections.

“I am extremely grateful and excited for the opportunity to attend nationals,” he said. “I plan to do much more targeted practice this time around by focusing my reading on test material and going through practice scenarios with my friends for the patient diagnosis section of the exam.”

Brigman said the event was made possible due to the efforts of Maphis and other graduate student volunteers.

“This is something that’s for high school students by our students,” Brigman said. “They do it because they want to reach out to young scientists and get them involved.”

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