Cerebrum Article

Brain Bee Alumni: Where Are They Now?

Published: January 14, 2022
Author: Kayt Sukel

Illustration by Boris Séméniako

More than two decades ago, Norbert Myslinski, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, wondered how he could better foster young students’ interest in the brain—and potentially encourage more young people to pursue careers in neuroscience. As they matriculated to university, he realized the vast majority of high school students got little, if any, education on the nervous system. After some brainstorming, Myslinski came up with the idea for a competition, much like the National Spelling Bee—but this event would focus solely on the brain.

“It really was [Myslinski’s] vision to have the Bee evolve into a truly international initiative—and it’s become that now,” says Astrid Eberhart, executive director of the International Brain Bee (IBB). “But, even from the very beginning, the mission was to encourage high school students to foster their interest in the brain and encourage them to continue their education and pursue a career in neuroscience.”

With that primary objective in place, it’s easy to wonder if the IBB is meeting its mission to cultivate the next generation of neuroscientists. After all, there may be many reasons why students aged 13-19 might decide to compete in such an event. Some may sign up for their local brain bee for extra credit in biology or to try something new and interesting with friends. Others may be thinking about finding a new activity to help jazz up their college applications. Yet, while there are no hard and fast statistics about how many IBB participants ultimately go into neuroscience, it’s clear that the IBB is helping competitors, at the very least, understand the possibilities of different careers in the sciences after taking part in the program. In fact, several of the IBB winners have gone on to pursue a variety of different careers with a neuroscientific bent. Here’s a look at five winners—and where they are now.

When not exploring the brain, Arjun Bharioke explores ancient ruins. Here, he navigates through the Greek “Temple of Concordia” in Sicily.

Neural Circuits Investigations

Arjun Bharioke
2001 Champion
New Jersey

Arjun Bharioke, Ph.D., 34, didn’t know the Brain Bee existed until his school superintendent at Winston Churchill Junior High School in East Brunswick pulled him aside one day and suggested that he look into the competition. “We had spoken at some point, I’m not even sure when, and he knew I was interested in the brain,” says Bharioke. “So, when he got the notification about the event, he pulled me out of class and asked, ‘Hey, would you like to participate in this?’”

Bharioke was intrigued and immediately said yes—even though his local Brain Bee event was only a week away. He says he immediately started studying Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Facts book to prepare and was pleasantly surprised when he won the state and went on to Nationals.

“I think that was the second year that the competition was technically international because the winner the year before had been from Canada,” he says. “We were in Baltimore, and I really enjoyed the competition. But I also enjoyed that we got to go visit the National Institutes of Health, the National Library of Medicine, and then also got to see some actual anatomy dissections. I had never seen a real human brain before.”

In the years since, Bharioke has taken a traditional academic career path. Today, he is a post-doctoral fellow in Botund Roska’s laboratory at Switzerland’s University of Basel, focusing on systems neuroscience research. Bharioke says he’s known for some time that he wanted to pursue some sort of career in neuroscience—ever since his aunt had surgery to remove a brain tumor when he was a young child—but the ability to try out a variety of different research projects as an undergraduate and graduate student eventually led him to concentrate on more comprehensive systems and circuits work.

“As an undergrad, I actually worked in a couple different research labs at the University of Toronto, doing not only neuroscience but also quantum mechanics,” he says. “Then I did my graduate work at Janiela Research Campus [a Howard Hughes Medical Institute site], doing more computational neuroscience because I wanted to understand more general questions, like how the connections between neurons, that specific structure, translate into actual function.”

Once Bharioke completes his fellowship, he hopes to start his own laboratory, pursuing more basic research to better understand how the brain does computations in order to promote function. When asked about advice for future Brain Bee participants, Bharioke spoke highly of the event and encouraged everyone interested to give it a go.

“The Brain Bee gives you an opportunity to meet people and do things which are very different than what you do in your general day-to-day activities in school,” he says. “It also gives you opportunities to try new things and really open up your mind to the possibilities of what neuroscience can offer.”

After 16 years in neuroscience research labs, Julianne McCall pivoted to a career in science policy at the California Council on Science and Technology in 2016. McCall has also helped organize several World Championships.

Brain Policy Champion

Julianne McCall
2002 Third Place

Julianne McCall, Ph.D., 37, considers the Brain Bee a transformative event in her life. Despite the fact that she did not win the national contest—she came in a “very proud third.” McCall says the event inspired her to start organizing her own Brain Bee events as a student at Denison University in Ohio.

“Central Ohio didn’t have its own Brain Bee, so we pulled together their first one,” she says. “Then, when I graduated from college and went to graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, I started the San Diego Brain Bee. Then my professor moved us to Germany partway through my doctorate, so I started the German National Brain Bee. Once I got my Ph.D., I moved to Sacramento and started another one there. It’s in its third or fourth year now. It sort of took on a life of its own; but I saw where there were opportunities for growth and was happy to help make them happen.”

McCall’s degrees are both in neuroscience—in fact, after graduating from Chagrin Falls High School, she lobbied for Denison University to create its first neuroscience major while studying there—but instead of taking a more traditional academic path, she now works in a public policy role.

“After getting my doctorate, I was dead set on making an impact,” she explains. “With IBB, I was exposed to so many different cultural approaches to STEM education in different countries. I realized it wasn’t just a matter of promoting education but also looking at the education policies so we could figure out how to fill in the right gaps. It’s hard to be a scientist and not see the discrepancies between where the public is going with science and where science is going with science.”

After getting her Ph.D., McCall was selected to participate in a seven-year fellowship program with the California Council on Science and Technology and was assigned to the state senate office for research. There, she worked on projects to bridge the gaps between science and governance. Since then, she has taken on the role of co-director of the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine in the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. Yet, as busy as she is, McCall is still an active volunteer with the IBB and heartily recommends any interested students that she meets to sign up.

“I think it’s crazy how in high school we are learning the physics formulas for the trajectory of a ball through space, but we still don’t study how our brain works,” she points out. “The priorities of STEM education are a little out of step with where modern science has taken us. So, I remain very passionate about bringing students into this realm, whether they choose to pursue neuroscience or medicine as a career, or just learn more about the brain. There are so many different approaches to understanding science. But you have to start somewhere.”

After a study abroad experience, Elena Perry switched her focus from neuroscience to microbiology.

Microbiota Mania

Elena Perry
2008 IBB Champion

Elena Perry, Ph.D., 29, doesn’t remember how, exactly, she first heard of the Brain Bee. That said, as a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, she had a blossoming interest in neuroscience. Yet, her studies were limited by what information was being offered in her science classes. “[Neuroscience] was not something we were being taught in our normal biology classes,” she recalls. “I loved reading and learning about new scientific areas, especially in biology. So, once I did hear about the Brain Bee, I decided to take a shot at it.”

After memorizing what she could of Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Facts book, she took home first prize at both the local and national levels. But she quickly realized she would need to up her game for the international competition held in Montreal, Canada, and do more than just memorize the basics.

“There were a lot of practical exams, which were very challenging,” she says, regarding the parts of the competition that involve patient diagnosis and neuroanatomy. “But I really enjoyed the challenge, actually, as it helped me really apply the knowledge I had learned in earlier competitions.”

Perry was already considering a career in research when she decided to participate in the Brain Bee. But after completing an internship with Barry Kaplan, Ph.D., after her win (that coup was part of her prize), consideration turned into certainty. “That was my first real research experience in a biology wet lab,” she says. “I decided I wanted to pursue a career in lab-based research after that.”

As a student at Yale University, she contributed to undergraduate research in neuroscience until, after a study abroad experience, she was introduced to the wonders of microbiology. “The researchers there were looking at compounds made by bacteria and microorganisms that could be used as new antibiotics,” she says. “I started pursuing microbiology after that. I did my Ph.D. in microbiology at the California Institute of Technology and am now working as a postdoctoral research fellow at Genentech in the Bay Area, looking at host microbe interactions in the context of the human gut.”

While Perry may not be working in neuroscience research per se, she believes the IBB is a great way for students to get introduced to emerging new fields—and understand the realities of working in a research environment: “The Brain Bee, like research, requires a lot of self-direction and self-motivation. It’s great preparation for college and beyond, especially for people who may be interested in going into the sciences.”

At Brown University, Sojas Wagle studied psychiatric epidemiology when he wasn’t tossing leaves in the air.

Psychiatric Epidemiologist

Sojas Wagle
2017 IBB Champion

Sojas Wagle, 20, was taking a summer course on Alzheimer’s disease at Duke University when the instructor mentioned a unique neuroscience competition called the Brain Bee. At Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, he had been previously involved with the Geography Bee and took first prize in the Whiz Kids’ Edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire—Wagle’s ears immediately perked up as the instructor described the event.

“The instructor said if brain science interests you and you want to apply your knowledge in a competition, you should find out about your local Brain Bee. I thought, ‘Wow, this looks like a new outlet where I can engage in my competitive interests,’” he says. “The first time I tried out was my freshman year of high school, and I got second in the state. It was just one spot away from Nationals. So, I immediately set my sights on going to Nationals the next year.”

He not only won the Arkansas Brain Bee and the national competition that year—he then proceeded to take the top prize at the International Brain Bee as well. He credits reaching out to different researchers as what really helped make a difference as he prepared for the event.

“Identifying different brain structures was what got me out during my freshman year,” he says. “So, I made sure to get a brain model and know it inside out before going back. For Nationals, there was a lot of new information to cover so I would seek out neurologists or other neuroscience experts in my state to learn more. They let me visit them, and I was able to get into a laboratory where there were physical brain specimens and histological slides. It gave me a lot of exposure to the more practical side of things.”

After his win, Wagle admits he wasn’t entirely sure what his career ambitions were. He was still very interested in cultural geography, but what he learned about the brain while prepping for the Brain Bees definitely helped him to “prioritize neuroscience more” as he started to think about college. Now an undergraduate student at Brown University, he created his own independent concentration (Brown’s term for major) that he calls psychiatric epidemiology.

“I created the concentration in collaboration with a professor from the School of Public Health,” he explains. “I specifically wanted to focus on health inequities in mental illness—and how the incidence and prevalence of mental illness is quite different in minority communities. It gave me the perfect outlet to get into research and apply my skills while also getting good training in the classroom with classes ranging from history, sociology, psychology, and the hard sciences.”

As for his next steps, Wagle plans to attend medical school and work in child/adolescent psychiatry, finding avenues beyond medication to help these vulnerable patients. “The field is opening up to non-pharmaceutical interventions,” he says. “There’s a lot of room for mindfulness as well as group and individual therapy. And through internships and exposure to other research, I’m also learning about possible future ways to deinstitutionalize psychiatric treatment.”

During a visit to Chengdu City in Sichuan Province, Yidou Weng wore her Mulan costume while meditating in the gardens at the Wuhou Shrine.

Computational Neuroscientist

Yidou (Gwen) Weng
2019 IBB Champion

Yidou (Gwen) Weng, 19, thinks that neuroscience remains a niche subject in China. But when she learned about the competition from her friends at Jiangxi Normal University, she was very interested in participating. After winning both the regional and national events in China, Weng spent more than six months preparing for the international competition that was held in Daegu, South Korea.

“The IBB has different sessions than the China Brain Bee,” she explains. “You need to do a written test but also do neuroanatomy and patient diagnosis tasks. There was not a lot of resources at my school to help with this, so I watched a lot of YouTube videos.”

After winning the IBB in 2019, Weng participated in several research projects that helped to foster her interest. She is currently a first-year student at the National University of Singapore, where she is studying computational biology.

“I have spent a lot of time exploring neuroscience and figuring out what I want to do. And I think the IBB definitely influenced my career plans,” she says. “I feel like research is probably the way for me. My plan is to continue studying here and then go into a graduate program in computational neuroscience.”

Certainly, Weng says, the IBB inspired her intellectually. But she says one of the greatest aspects of participating in the international level was to become part of a “smart, supportive community of like-minded people.”

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to meet peers who have the same passion. They are all so talented and have achieved so much at a young age,” she says. “I can’t say that I’ve ever been in a circumstance where I’ve met such a high density of talented people. Honestly, I don’t recall the excitement of my win or the questions that I answered, but I remember the people and how we asked questions and exchanged ideas and had a lot of fun together.”

Are you an IBB alumnus?

If you have ever competed in a regional or National Brain Bee—or made it to the big show, the International Brain Bee organization would like to hear from you. The IBB is looking to gather more data on how the competition may influence later career choices. But reconnecting with the organization does more than just take note of whether you ultimately pursued a job in neuroscience; it also helps to foster a more comprehensive online community as well as potential networking opportunities for everyone involved. While the IBB is planning to create a more visible alumni sign-up on the IBB website soon, you can reconnect with the IBB community today by creating an account here. You can also reach out directly to Astrid Eberhart, executive director of the IBB at astrid.eberhart@thebrainbee.org.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of our Cerebrum magazine. Click the cover for the full e-magazine.