Zuckerman Institute Introduces Local High School Students to Brain Research

Gary Shapiro
August 13, 2014

Over the summer Idniel Paula headed to Nobel laureate and University Professor Eric Kandel’s neuroscience lab, donned a white coat and peered through a microscope. His daily routine resembled that of many experienced scientists but not of a typical 16-year-old high school student.

He was part of BRAINYAC (Brain Research Apprenticeships in New York at Columbia), a research program at the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute that places New York City high school students in laboratories for five weeks during the summer following training sessions on Saturdays during the preceding months. Funded by the Pinkerton Foundation, it helps students broaden their scientific knowledge, hone research skills and learn about possible biomedical careers. It is one element of the Zuckerman Institute’s unique mission to increase public understanding of brain science, especially in our community.

The 19 students, primarily minorities, earn a $1,000 stipend and present their research at the end of the summer to faculty and family members.

“When all the research comes together, we can see how we’re a team,” said Paula, who grew up in Washington Heights not far from Kandel’s lab at Columbia University Medical Center. This fall he will be a senior at Humanities Preparatory Academy in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

The Zuckerman Institute, co-directed by Kandel, which will soon make its home in the Renzo Piano-designed Jerome L. Greene Science Center, is scheduled to open in 2016 on Columbia’s Manhattanville campus. The Greene Science Center will also house a dedicated space where students in grades K-12, teachers and the public can participate in programs on the brain, mental health and neuroscience.

BRAINYAC, now in its second year, is just one of the outreach programs designed to engage the local community and broader public in the Institute’s mission to advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge about neuroscience and the brain. Others include Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to raise public awareness of brain research; NYC Regional Brain Bee, a competition that tests the neuroscience knowledge of high school students; Columbia University Neuroscience Outreach, a graduate student-run organization that sends scientists into New York City classrooms; and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight lecture series and teacher-scholar program. The lecture series, open to all, serves as the basis for a seminar series for New York high school science teachers to increase their scientific knowledge and bring their training back to the classroom in the form of lesson plans.

In the News
Program Allows High School Students to Get Training in Lab Skills, Neuroscience, NY1, August 2014

Summer of Science: City Schools Team with Local Colleges for STEM Programs, New York Daily News, August 2014

A hallmark of the BRAINYAC program is mentoring. “Scientists recognize how their scientific careers were built on relationships they formed with other scientists,” said Dr. Kelley Remole (CC’04, GSAS’12), director of neuroscience outreach for the Zuckerman Institute.

In Kandel’s lab, Paula examined brain slices under a microscope. He worked under the supervision of Dr. Edmund Griffin Jr. (CC’96), studying how nicotine and alcohol affect the brain, making it easier to become addicted to illicit drugs, such as cocaine.

Griffin, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry, laments the emphasis that many high schools place on memorization, comparing science to the arts. “Science is very much a creative process where you imagine how things move within the cell, you then make hypotheses and test them,” he said. He welcomes the contributions of his mentees: “I want them to put their paint strokes on the painting.”

Fellow BRAINYAC Cheyenne Simpson, 16, was assigned to the laboratory of Dr. Jack Grinband, an assistant professor of clinical radiology.

She sat at a computer scrolling over images of a human brain, creating 3‑D representations of cavities left over after neurosurgery has removed frontal areas of the brain. Her work addresses a dilemma that surgeons face in estimating how much area around a tumor can be safely removed.

Grinband praised the program for exposing high school students to research and opening the doors to many different kinds of opportunities. “The really nice thing about the summer program is that Cheyenne is doing a lot of the same work that a graduate student would be doing in the lab,” he said.

Simpson, who will be a junior this fall at Mary Louis Academy, a private Catholic school in Jamaica Estates, Queens, has wanted to be a doctor since age 7, even dressing up like one for Halloween. “This summer has been a great opportunity for me to be around people in the medical field,” she said. She recalls going to visit her 103-year-old great-grandfather at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and hearing him tell the nurses, “She’ll be working here someday.”