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Postdoctoral researcher Julie Schneider (right) watches as a visiting student applies electrolyte gel to the scalp of research assistant Nicolo Bautista, enabling observers to see how his neural activity changes in real time as it is transmitted via Bluetooth to
the screen above.
does the brain stop growing? Does a magnetic resonance imaging machine
emit radiation? What inspired you to study the brain?
These were just a few of the questions that inquisitive fifth-graders
from the Independence School had for University of Delaware
postdoctoral researcher Julie Schneider during a recent tour of UD’s Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging (CBBI).
CBBI is a state-of-the-art research facility that houses the first
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners dedicated to research in the
state of Delaware. Like human MRI machines found in hospitals, these
instruments use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to form images of
the brain and other parts of the body.
Other capabilities in the
facility enable research on psychopathology, cancer, stroke, cerebral
palsy, osteoporosis and other diseases and disorders.
The visit to CBBI and other laboratories on UD’s Newark campus
was part of a middle school STEM event designed to help the young
students gain a deeper understanding of the brain and the tools
researchers use to study it.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Independence School students participate in a “kitchen
neuroscience” experiment to understand how near infrared spectroscopy
allows researchers to “peek” into the brain and better understand it.
Schneider, who hosted the visitors alongside graduate students associated with the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science,
called the event an opportunity “to share her journey and her love of
neuroscience” with potential future researchers, maybe even fellow Blue
“I was inspired to study the brain after my father, who is bilingual,
had a stroke and lost the ability to speak. With treatment and therapy,
he was able to regain this capability,” Schneider told the
fifth-graders. “I wanted to understand how the brain could adapt — and
recover — from different things in his life like that. That’s why I
decided to become a neuroscientist and do research.”
During the tour, the students learned ways UD researchers are
using light and fNIRs (near infrared spectroscopy) to “peek inside the
brain” and better understand what is happening. They heard about the
scientific method and made paper "brain hats," too.
The fifth graders also had a chance to go inside an MRI simulator
and hear the noises that a real MRI machine produces as it works. Down
the hall, UD graduate students taught them about functional MRI, a
technique that allows researchers to visualize which structures and
neural networks in the brain “light up” during different activities,
such as watching a video, listening to music or looking at pictures, by
measuring the blood flow to active areas of the brain.
A visiting fifth-grader test drives UD’s MRI simulation machine.
“MRI can help us map connections and learn how different regions of
the brain communicate with each other,” said Jennifer Legault, also a
postdoctoral researcher at UD.
Hands-on team activities like planning and building a tower using
dry spaghetti, a large marshmallow and tape, helped the students
understand that research isn’t just one person working in a lab. It
takes many people working together, failing and starting over again in
order to learn, grow and further research on a particular problem.
During a discussion, one fifth-grader asked, “How does the brain
control the whole body at once?” It’s a big question. Schneider
explained that the brain sends electrical currents throughout our bodies
using neurons, tiny messengers that quickly ferry information back and
forth. Researchers can measure this electrical activity in the brain
using a technique known as electroencephalography, or EEG.
She described how researchers can “clean up the EEG data” with fancy
math algorithms to remove results that come from natural things like
blinking our eyes or breathing. Some students in the room groaned and
said things like “I can’t do math.”
“Sure, you can,” said Schneider, “We need mathematicians — and
engineers — to help us with these complicated research questions, like
understanding how people learn new things or how brain signals change
with age or developmental disorders like autism.”
Understanding how the brain works is difficult, even for adults.
Sometimes seeing is believing and one memorable experience can inspire a
“I thought the field trip was really fun and interesting. Our visit
to the lab makes me think about becoming a neuroscientist when I grow
up,” fifth-grader Brinton Harra said.
Article by Karen B. Roberts; photos by Kathy Atkinson