Dissecting science: Brain day

January 26, 2016
Arryn Davis

For the middle school Girls in Science team, a Saturday morning spent running transpiration experiments, conducting dissections, or measuring spectroscopy is not an unusual affair. Throughout the school year, a group of 16 girls convene at the Burke once a month to explore different topics within the STEM fields, conduct experiments, and meet female scientists. The topics vary year-to-year, but this year include climatology, spectroscopy, pollination, mathematics, oceanography and neuroscience.

The group met with UW neuroscientist Bingni Brunton, to get a close look at how the brain functions by experiencing illusions and dissecting sheep brains. By first watching a series of mind-bending illusions, they quickly learned that “our brain corrects things we don’t understand, so that we can understand them. What we think we see isn’t actually what’s going on.”

girls looking at brain in hand

Photo: Burke Museum

The group then got a hands-on look “under the hood” by dissecting sheep brains*, which have a very similar structure to the human brain. The first step was to identify the four lobes of the brain and the cerebellum or motor cortex. Then, the brain had to be split down the center line, called the longitudinal fissure. The team learned about the hypothalamus; responsible for maintaining internal homeostasis, and the thalamus; the sensory relay center, but the most exciting part was finding the hippocampus; the center for emotion and memory conversion.

“It was so weird,” said one student, “to see the place where your memories are.”

girl dissecting brain in tray

Photo: Burke Museum

This is the second year for the Girls in Science program, started by Dr. Caroline Strömberg, the Burke’s paleobotany curator. The program is focused on reaching young female scientists at a critical age; a time when research shows that social pressures and gender stereotypes cause many girls to lose interest in pursuing math and science. This program strives to create a supportive and encouraging environment, and to introduce aspiring students to successful female scientists and role models.

As “Brain Day” began to wrap up, some groups were able to find the arbor vitae, also known as the “tree of life”; a structure of white matter inside the cerebellum that’s shaped like a tree. “I like how each one is different, but the same,” said one student. “Every brain is different, and they’re all beautiful in their own way.”

girl holds sheep brain in gloved hand

Photo: Burke Museum

*The sheep specimens were supplied by Carolina Biological, one of the leading suppliers of lab materials for science education.

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