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Hotchkiss trainees spark a passion for neuroscience

Brain Awareness Week March 16-22: HBITO community-engagement initiatives raise awareness about brain research

Grade 10 student Janson Kappen, champion of the Eighth Annual Calgary Brain Bee, will compete at the 2015 Canadian National Brain Bee at McMaster University in May.

Janson Kappen, a Grade 10 student at Calgary's Westmount Charter School, dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. He is fascinated by the brain; his favourite fact about the human brain is that it contains nearly 100 billion neurons, the same number of stars in our galaxy.

On March 7, Kappen had the opportunity to put his neuroscience knowledge to the test at the 8th annual Calgary Brain Bee, a neuroscience competition for students in Grade 9-12 hosted by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) and organized by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute Trainee Organization (HBITO), an organization that seeks to inspire curiosity about brain research and encourage the study of neuroscience through various community outreach initiatives. 

The HBITO holds the Calgary Brain Bee every March in conjunction with Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research which begins today.

Cheered on by his family and classmates, Kappen made it through a preliminary round, as well as 10 rounds of oral questions and two written tiebreaker rounds of questions before being named champion.

“It feels really good! I studied 130 pages of pure facts and just trying to remember it all took a lot of time and it was really tough. I’m happy that it paid off,” he said after winning.

Kappen was one of 28 students from Calgary and the surrounding area participating in this year’s competition. Contestants were asked questions about a wide range of neuroscience-related topics including: neuroanatomy, brain chemistry, neurological disorders, brain development, and the history of neuroscience.

“It’s a lot of fun, both for us at the HBI and the students,” says Cam Teskey, PhD, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy and HBI education director within the Cumming School of Medicine. “These students work really hard and they enjoy the competition.”

Kappen will advance to the Canadian National Brain Bee, held at McMaster University in May. He’ll be spending time each week with HBI graduate students who will help him prepare for the national finals. If he wins at McMaster, he’ll go on to represent Canada at the International Brain Bee in Australia.

  • Are you smarter than a 10th grader? Click here to test your neuroscience knowledge on questions from the 2015 Calgary Brain Bee Exam.

Inspiring a passion for research

“We try to use the Brain Bee to spark a passion for neuroscience and research in these kids,” says HBITO member Haley Vecchiarelli, one of the Brain Bee's organizers. “I was lucky enough to get involved in science in high school and that set me on my career path.”

Each year, HBI graduate students visit science classrooms in high schools all over Calgary to talk to students about the brain, neuroscience research, and encourage participation in the Brain Bee.

“We’re always looking to see if students are interested in coming to the University of Calgary, perhaps into our Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience program,” says Teskey. The undergraduate program is a collaboration between the faculties of science and arts, the Cumming School of Medicine, and with the HBI.

The HBITO also has a mentorship program that pairs graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the HBI with undergraduate and high school students, like Kappen, who are interested in pursuing a career in neuroscience.

HBITO outreach initiatives 

The Brain Bee is one of several initiatives the HBITO supports. “We try to volunteer in the community as much as we can,” says Rami Halabi, outreach director for the HBITO. “We want to be contributing members of the Calgary community.”

The HBITO is also helping out Run for Little Ones, a not-for-profit organization that hosts an annual charity run to raise money for neurocritical care services at the Alberta Children's Hospital. The HBITO will be volunteering at this year’s run and promoting it to professors and students at the HBI, says Halabi.

Members of the HBITO are raising brain awareness by volunteering with Brain Day as well, giving presentations to elementary schools about the importance of brain safety, teaching students how the brain works and the best way to protect it from injury. (Wear a helmet!)

The HBITO is planning to collaborate with the Telus Spark too, helping to create programming. In April, at the Spring Sparktacular, students will be explaining what happens in the brain when you eat chocolate. HBITO members will also be helping out with Telus Spark's monthly Adults Only Nights, on topics including the neuroscience of fear, anxiety, and playing games.

"Our goal is to get people excited about neuroscience and neuroscience research,” says Halabi. “We want to get out into the community and let people know what we do at the HBI and get people curious and asking questions.”

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals.