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Eighth-graders BOOST their knowledge of brains, stroke, and neuroscience research

Friday, July 7, 2017
By Latasha Jeter

From learning about stroke to interacting with laboratory rats, it was an eventful experience for 25 Students from Building Opportunities and Overtures in Science and Technology (BOOST) XXL science program.

These students along with their camp counselors visited Duke University and several research departments, including the Department of Neurology, Thursday, June 29, as a part of their weekly field trips.

BOOST XXL is a group of rising 8th-graders focusing on learning about the brain, biological sciences, and advanced technology. The students and chaperones were separated into small groups and rotated from three sites. At each site the students were able to explore different topics.

Yasmin O’Keefe, MD a neurologist focusing on neurocritical care and one of the session leaders, led an interactive session about stroke. “Once these brain tissues die, they are gone forever,” O’Keefe said as she discussed the importance of getting medical attention as soon as possible for someone who is having a stroke.

Using a city analogy, she explained what happens to the brain during a stroke. She compared the brain to a large city. The people living in a large city get their food and resources from trucks that use various roads which lead to the city.

Ali O'Keefe
O'Keefe leads a discussion of what happens during a stroke.

“If these roads become blocked, the trucks no longer have access to the city. The people do not have any of the resources and food to survive,” O’Keefe said. “This is what happens when arteries to the brain become blocked, leaving the brain unable to receive the nutrients it needs to function.”

O’Keefe also gave the students a lesson about how people live their lives after surviving a stroke. She gave the students different tasks to complete using only one arm to mirror the effect of losing the ability to use certain parts of your body after a stroke.

BOOST students
To simulate life after a stroke, BOOST students attempted several tasks using only one arm or leg.

Normal tasks that usually take a few minutes take longer to complete. The students were tasked to write a sentence, tie their shoes, and put on a pants and shirt using only their left arm. “This is harder than I expected,” one student said as he struggled to button up a shirt.

Students also visited laboratories in the Genome Sciences Research Building II with Laura Oliviera, MD. Researchers from the Neurobiology Department presented their research to the students. The students asked engaging questions and were intrigued by the research rats that were a part of the experiments.

BOOST students also received a hands-on tour of the Neurobiology Department's Nicoleis lab.

“The kids are very smart, much smarter than we were at the same age. They were very engaged in whatever we showed them. It is a wonderful feeling to have kids around, discovering our world,” Oliviera said.

The students also rotated to the Bryan Brain Bank where students met John Ervin, a research analyst at the Department of Neurology. Students were able to see human brain tissue in the Brain Bank and observe cells under a microscope. Ervin also discussed different neurological diseases and showed students a neuron model made from rope and swimming pool floats.

Ervin's tour used props to illustrate how neurotransmitters function.

Though the students had a long day visiting the various research buildings, the students remained engaged and asked a lot of questions. The doctors and researchers were impressed by the level of knowledge the students had about science and the brain.

“I'm so glad that such a program exists for these kids. It gives me faith in the new generations coming up, and just how much potential there is to cultivate,” O’Keefe said.