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International Brain Bee 2011

On Friday the 8th of July, Mum picked me up from my ballet class early. I had a plane to catch- I was going to Florence, Italy, to represent New Zealand in the International Brain Bee Competition. Accompanied by my dad and my sister, Laura, I boarded the flight to Hong Kong. I was very nervous, though I did start to get excited as the air show showed that we were flying over the equator. It was the first time I had ever been in the Northern Hemisphere.

I had planned to study on the trip from Hong Kong to Frankfurt, and from there on to London, but it is surprisingly hard to concentrate on the cerebellar cortex when you haven’t had any sleep for 24 hours, so I stole Laura’s book instead.

The next day, we began what proved to be a very Tudor-themed tour of London, which was appropriate, as both Laura and I are very interested in history. We went to the Tower of London, to the British Museum and to see ‘Wicked’. We also went to the Globe Theatre, but the most memorable part of that particular trip was turning a corner and finding we were going to be walking over the Millennium Bridge- that is, the bridge that the Death Eaters destroy at the beginning of the sixth Harry Potter movie. I hadn’t realised it was an actual bridge! My favourite activity in London was our visit to Hampton Court Palace, where King Henry VIII lived. It was quite unreal to think that we were walking through the actual rooms where he and his wives had once lived.

The next day, we departed for Florence, and, one very bumpy plane ride later, stepped off the plane into 37°C heat, which took some getting used to as it had been raining in London. The next day was Thursday, and at lunchtime we went off to find the conference centre where the competition was being held. It was an old Medici fortress that had had a modern conference centre built in behind it. After Dad, who is a doctor, had registered for the conference, we went across to the room where the competition was being held. This was in the fortress itself, though it had luckily had airconditioning installed. Here, we met Dr. Norbert Myslinski, who founded the Brain Bee competition, and Julianne, who participated in the Brain Bee herself and who looked after us during the competition. This was also a chance to meet some of the other competitors and see Ben, the Australian competitor, again. We received our ‘National Brain Bee Champion’ labcoats, which we were supposed to wear whenever we were doing activities for Brain Bee- though not everyone was particularly happy to do so! That evening, we attended the conference’s opening ceremony, where Italian scientists talked about ‘Italy and the Brain’.

By lunchtime the following day, all 12 competitors had arrived and we met up to attend a session on ‘Music and the Brain’. This was definitely my favourite, because music is a very interesting topic- like language, it evolved a very long time ago, but unlike language it doesn’t seem to have a particular purpose. I was particularly interested by the woman who talked about a new disease she was researching, amusia. Those who have it can hear the words of a song, but cannot hear the tune. Following that session, we visited some of the posters and many of the trade stalls- having several photos taken and picking up souvenirs along the way. After attending a third and final session about science communication, which was also very interesting, we returned home for some last minute study.

The next day, Saturday the 16th, was competition day. Everyone nervously filled the competition room- I don’t think I stopped shaking the whole day. After taking what felt like hundreds of photos, the competition finally got underway. There were five rounds. The first was an oral question and answer round, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the questions were not too hard. Out of 25 questions, I scored 18, meaning I was coming second to Ben. Everyone decided that we were clearly well trained in Australasia! We next did the anatomy section. This was on a model brain, so was quite easy, and many people scored 100%. After the histology section, it was lunchtime.

When we returned, it was time for the Patient Diagnosis section. There were thirteen patient actors, and we had to diagnose all bar one of them with one of twelve diseases, including schizophrenia, Parkinson’s Disease and autism. Although some were obvious, many were harder than I expected and as I result I dropped to sixth place. There was one more round of questions and answers to go. Raring to go, I somehow
managed to get thirteen answers in a row correct, including being the only person to get Menière’s Disease as one of the answers- I was very grateful that I had read ‘Essential Neuroscience’ several times. It wasn’t quite enough to get me first, second or third, and I finished fifth equal. T.L, from America, won, and Ben was second. After several more photos, we all went out for dinner. This was really fun, as by that point we all knew each other quite well so we had some interesting discussions about, maths, our school curriculums, university- and also about the stereotypes we had of each other. Apparently those in the Northern hemisphere think we are all tribal warriors running around in grass skirts!

Brain Bee over, I now had my chance to stop studying and enjoy Europe. We went to Pisa the next day, before spending a day in Munich. We then spent a week in France- a couple of days in Brittany and Normandy, and a few in Paris. I also got the chance to practise my French, since we got very lost trying to find our hotel near Monet’s Garden. It was quite nice to know that the people I talked to could understand me, and I them. Brain Bee has, all in all, been a fantastic experience. I have learnt so much, I got the chance to go to Europe for the first time, and I met so many fantastic people in the process. So I would like to thank everyone at the University of Auckland and the University of Otago who helped me to prepare for this and the previous round, and also my biology teacher, Mrs Gunn, who spent so much time helping me prepare (and put up with me adding random brain facts to Year 12 Biology lessons!).



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