Safia Mirza planned to pursue a career in reconstructive surgery, but a neuroscience competition she participated in Saturday at Hofstra University opened her to another option: the study of the human brain.
“I never thought of it before, but looking at the specimens sparked an interest in me,” Mirza, 16, said after winning the competition — and a trip to next month’s national Brain Bee championship in Baltimore.
“The brain is one of the most unexplored organs, and the answer to a lot of diseases lies in the brain,” said the junior at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School.
Mirza was one of 31 Long Island high school students who participated in the event at the university’s medical school, one of 50 regional competitions in 30 states that lead up to the national championship. The U.S. winner advances to the August world competition in Washington, D.C.
University of Maryland Professor Norbert Myslinski founded Brain Bee in 1998 to motivate young people to learn about the human brain and encourage them to consider a career in neuroscience.
On Saturday, students first took a written neuroscience exam. They were urged to prepare by studying downloadable books provided by Brain Bee. They then walked to a laboratory where they examined human brains and spinal cords, and were asked to name certain parts and explain what those parts do.
The high-schoolers later chatted over pizza with Hofstra medical school students and researchers.
Celia Toral, 16, a sophomore at Sachem East High School in Farmingville, said she’s long been interested in a career that allows her to work with children.
After reviewing materials to prepare for the bee, she decided to specialize in pediatric neurology, both to help kids with neurological diseases and because of the challenge.
“There are so many things they don’t know” about how the brain and nervous system function, she said.
Jason Brenner, 17, a senior at Plainview-Old Bethpage, said studying neuroscience “changes the way you look at everyday behavior and mental processes.”
The brain is what drives behavior, and by knowing more about it, he said, “I can understand why certain things occur — emotions, learning, why we sleep the way we do.”
The competition was the first on Long Island since 2014.
Last year, Long Island students competed against their peers from New York City and Westchester County at Columbia University in Manhattan. A Bethpage High School senior won.