The event, hosted by the UNM Department of Neuroscience, included guided tours of some of the UNM Neuroscience research labs, viewing and handling of real human brains and live EMG scans of each student’s brain.

“We’re really excited because this is the first time that we’ve had a statewide Brain Bee in New Mexico,” said Dr. Jonathan Brigman, assistant professor of Neuroscience. “We’re excited to have support from the Brain and Behavioral Health Institute to send the winner of this statewide competition to the national competition, which is in Baltimore this year.”

The competition itself is based on the Brain Facts publication freely available from the Society for Neuroscience, and covers material from neuroanatomy to brain diseases.

“We wanted to make sure that this was a fun and exciting event for everyone, rather than a stressful competition,” Brigman said. “So everyone got to participate in the practical event first — see the videos, see the brain slices, do all of the questions. Then everybody got to participate in the written portion, where the questions were presented via PowerPoint. We did four rounds; then, based on that, we picked a cumulative score.”

The finalists participated in a spelling bee-style competition on stage. At the end, Barela was victorious.

“Brain Bee was a great experience for me,” Barela said. “My classmates and I got to visit labs and learn about research that is happening now at the University. Everyone we talked to in the neuroscience department was enthusiastic and genuinely interested in answering whatever questions we had. The whole environment was very welcoming and positive.”

If Barela wins the national competition she will advance to the international level, which in the past has included students from 19 countries and has been held in places like Austria and South Africa. To prepare, Barela said she will be studying the Brain Facts material and supplementing it with additional resources on anatomy and histology.

The competition is part of an outreach program designed to get more high school students interested in neuroscience.

“I really like outreach — I actually got interested in neuroscience through an educational program at 15, and a bunch of my friends did too,” said Jennifer Cheng, a UNM PREP scholar in the neuroscience department who helped organize the event. “I would’ve loved to do the Brain Bee when I was in high school.”

Fellow organizer Dr. Danielle Protas, a post-doctoral fellow in the neuroscience department, said she felt the same.

“I like devoting my time to getting people interested in neuroscience and hopefully getting the next round of neuroscientists to start pursuing graduate school,” Protas said. “It starts at high school.”

While this is the first year for the event in New Mexico, organizers said they plan to hold it annually and that it will become more competitive each year as it includes more students.

Lauren Topper is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at, or on Twitter @DailyLobo.