When DesTiny Overton was born, her doctors gently broke the news to her mother that the newborn had almost certainly suffered severe brain damage.
It had been a difficult birth, during which oxygen had been cut off to DesTiny’s developing brain not just once, but twice.
“The doctors told me that I’d be fortunate if DesTiny would ever be able to walk on her own or feed herself,” her mother, Lanita Rhodes of Buffalo, N.Y., recalled. “Thank God, she turned out just the opposite.”
It means more to Rhodes than she can express that DesTiny, now 17, is a budding neuroscientist, the kind of kid who on Saturday could look at a series of MRI scans and confidently answer why this particular part of the diencephalon is important for memory, and also name the part of the cortex folded deep within the lateral sulcus.
DesTiny was one of 54 teens from around the nation who gathered at the University of Maryland, Baltimore this week to compete in the four-day USA Brain Bee Championship. The winner, to be announced Sunday afternoon, will advance to the world championships this summer in Berlin, Germany.
The competition, which included a laboratory in which contestants studied real human brains, was founded by Norbert Myslinski, a neuroscience professor at the university.
“I wanted to inspire young men and women to go into the neuroscience profession,” Myslinski said, “so they can help research, treat and find cures for brain diseases.”
A Saturday morning segment of the competition that tested the contestants’ ability to identify different parts of the brain resembled speed dating for brain cells. Each contestant stood hunched over a different slide, and from the picture alone, attempted to decide whether he or she was looking at, say, the Crista Ampullaris or perhaps the Node of Ranvier. After a scant sixty seconds, the moderator would say “rotate,” and the kids would move over one space to the right and tackle the next slide.
Parents visiting from out of town were encouraged to leave the medical school and sightsee, but many were unable to tear themselves away from their offspring. Anil Gudoor of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, kept close watch on his 16-year-old son, Pavan.
“I just want to make sure that he’s comfortable,” Gudoor said, “When he’s stressed, he tends to rotate his wrist. He’s not doing that today, though, which means he’s OK.”
DesTiny was first nudged toward studying neuroscience two years ago by a family emergency. Her 4-year-old nephew, a bubbly little boy who adores her and whose baby pictures are nearly identical to her own, had emergency surgery to remove a cancerous growth.
DesTiny spent the two weeks of her spring break in the hospital by his bedside. She asked so many questions about his cancer and soaked up the knowledge so quickly that the staff began bringing her medical books to read. After undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, the child is in remission, while DesTiny recently secured her second summer internship at Buffalo’s Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Myslinski said it’s not unusual for a youngster to decide upon a medical or scientific career in response to an encounter with illness. He became a neuroscientist in part to better understand a host of brain disorders — multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease — that have ravaged his birth family.
Kayleigh McCagg, winner of the Rensselaer district competition in New York, vividly remembers the day 11 years ago when her twin brother suffered a grand mal seizure. The two 7-year-olds were in the back seat of the car when the boy’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he didn’t appear to hear her increasingly frantic questions about what was wrong.
“It was really scary,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Ever since that day, McCagg has been determined to find out. As a high school senior, the 18-year-old has already become involved in a project researching depression among people diagnosed with a drug-resistant form of epilepsy. She’ll attend college in the fall and has her sights on medical school.
Participating in the Brain Bee, she said, was too good an opportunity to pass up, regardless of where she finishes in the standings.
“It helps expand my knowledge base,” she said, “and gives me a chance to talk to other people who are all as passionate about neuroscience as I am.”
Some contestants, including McCagg, prepared for the competition by studying for weeks. Others, such as 18-year-old Kathryn Getter of Sparks, barely cracked a book.
Partly, that’s because she is poised, articulate and confident in what she knows. But mostly, it’s because she’s dyslexic.
Reading isn’t the conduit to knowledge for her that it is for others. Though it’s immediately apparent to even a casual acquaintance that Kathryn is extremely bright, for most of her life, school was a struggle.
“My teachers couldn’t understand why my grades were so bad,” she said.
Finally, one teacher figured out that Kathryn processes information aurally. When she is allowed to listen to questions and provide answers verbally instead of writing them down, she excels.
“In one year, my grade point average shot up from 1.8 to 4.0,” she said.
In the fall, Kathryn will enroll at the University of Denver, where she secured a scholarship to study piano performance. But she suspects that for her, music is a hobby and that her true calling will be in medicine or science — and very possibly, in brain science.
“For most professions, there’s a ceiling on how much you can learn,” she said. “But in the sciences and medicine, there is no ceiling. So much about the brain is still unknown. There is no limit, and that’s what makes it exciting.”