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Middle schoolers BOOST their knowledge of neurology

Friday, July 27, 2018
By Imani Taylor

In the words of famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” This is why the Building Opportunities and Overtures in Science and Technology (BOOST) program introduces minority students into the field of science, in hopes of gearing more underrepresented minorities into career paths involving science and medicine.

On Thursday, June 28th, three groups of seven to eight rising eighth graders from Durham stepped foot onto the premises of the Duke School of Medicine and learned about Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and stroke, from various members of the Duke Neurology Department.

With the assistance of their camp counselors, the students were able to have hands on experience with the daily routine of a healthy neurotransmitter, and was able to be demonstrated upon for normal nerve reflexes by using a reflex hammer.

“The reason we do reflexes is, if you have a lesion in your spinal cord or your brain, upper motor neurons is what we like to call it, your reflexes get increased. If I did it on someone, and they had a brain injury or spinal cord injury, their legs would kick off the table,” said third-year resident Ovais Inamullah, MD.

He further explained that the ultimate purpose in using a reflex hammer was to identify any lesion that may be in the brain or spinal cord. To get the students more involved, he asked them trivia questions.

“Where in the brain controls where in the body?” and “what is a stroke?” were two of the questions Inamullah asked. 

The students blurted out different answers and slapped their heads playfully when they answered incorrectly. When one answered correctly, the other students cheered them on. Stroke wasn’t the only complex lesson the children learned during their visit. Suma Shah, MD, educated the students on multiple sclerosis (MS) on the last day of her fellowship in the same field.

“My favorite part of the trip was probably Ms. Suma talking about different brain diseases. She was very good at explaining the complex information to the children, in a way that got them excited about what they were learning. She was also great at including both information we had already gone over in the week and info we were learning about later on. She kept them interested in what was to come and used her personal life,” said BOOST mentor MacKenzie Giattino.


Suma Shah, MD, (center), quizzes the BOOST students on what they've learned.

Soon after their interactive session with Shah on MS and neurology, the students toured the Bryan Brain Bank with John Ervin, a research analyst in the Department of Neurology, to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease. They were taken into Ervin’s lab and viewed different brain models and human brain tissue.

“I believe that the children really enjoyed seeing the brain lab and seeing the different brain illnesses in real life. I think them being able to see the difference in what the brains looked like with and without different diseases helped them realize how complex these illnesses are. In a sense I think it showed them what to look out for,” Giattino explained. 

Ervin then took out a model designed with rope and swimming pool floats, to demonstrate how neurons communicated with each other.

“When you pulled out the model, I liked how you showed us all of the parts and how it would stop functioning if all of the parts didn’t work. You need all of the parts to function. You couldn’t just function with one part,” said Xavier Johnson.

BOOST is a multidimensional program that aims to create a pipeline which attracts, engage, support, and retain underrepresented minority students in the sciences throughout their pre-collegiate education by exposing these students and their families to new people, places, and experiments that can open new worlds for them. Douglass “Doug” Coleman is the program director for the BOOST program.

“My favorite thing about BOOST is that we’re all a family. Doug works really hard from the time that he recruits us, to the time we finish the program, to create a safe environment. By doing so, he’s helped a lot of us make really good friends that we otherwise would have never met. BOOST really is just a family built up if all different kinds of kids, from all different walks of life,” said Giattino.

BOOST students have their reflexes checked as part of their visit.