High-school students examine brain capillaries in microscope videos from the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab as part of the "Help Cure Alzheimer’s Disease!" workshop on April 9, 2022.

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Biomedical engineers inspire 9th graders with neuroscience

Analyzing microscopy images of amyloid plaques and brain capillaries isn’t usually in the high-school syllabus, but for one group of ninth grade girls who attended a Cornell workshop on April 9, it was an opportunity to become citizen scientists and contribute directly to Alzheimer’s disease research.

Nine girls and their guardians attended “Help Cure Alzheimer’s Disease!,” a workshop hosted by students from the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering as part of Expanding Your Horizons at Cornell. The day-long event is aimed at inspiring girls through hands-on math and science activities led by women scientists.

The high-school girls attending the workshop learned about the link between Alzheimer’s and capillary blood flow through an interactive display of brain slices containing amyloid plaques, as well as videos of capillary microscopy, which is used by the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab to study the disease.

Graduate student Nancy Ruiz co-led the workshop, showcasing lasers and other optical tools used by the lab to study brain capillaries, including stalled or clogged capillaries that correlate to Alzheimer’s.

“We also gave an overview of our scientific careers and trajectories, and what led us to become scientists,” Ruiz said. “Our end goal was to inspire the girls to consider becoming scientists one day.”

A student uses Stall Catchers, an online game that challenges players to search for clogged capillaries in laboratory video.

The workshop’s main attraction was an opportunity for the girls to contribute to Alzheimer’s research through the citizen science project Stall Catchers – an online game that challenges players to search for clogged capillaries in real microscope videos from the lab. The images analyzed by players help the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab and others decipher large amounts of data that can only be interpreted manually.

“We thought it would be a great way to get young girls excited by the idea that they can make a difference in scientific research now,” said Nicole Chernavsky, a graduate student and workshop co-leader. “We wanted to show them they don’t have to go through eight more years of school before they can have a real impact.”

Stall Catchers launched in 2016 as a partnership between the Schaffer-Nishimura Lab and the Human Computation Institute, inviting all members of the public to contribute to Alzheimer’s research while vying for a spot on the game’s leaderboard. The girls attending the workshop competed in a challenge of their own, seeing who could identify the most stalled capillaries to win prizes.

“Overall, we think the workshop went great and the participants were able to learn more about citizen science and our research in the lab,” Ruiz said. “The highlight was seeing the girls and their companions have fun.”

Also leading the workshop was biomedical engineering student Katie McGarty ’23 and Pietro Michelucci, director of the Human Computation Institute and visiting scientist in the Meinig School.

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