Audience members at the Mind Science Foundation (MSF) pitch competition voted Tuesday evening to award the top prize of $30,000 to a neuroscientist researching resiliency in children raised in poverty.
The research team of Laurie Cutting, Stephanie Del Tufo, and Tin Nguyen from Vanderbilt University will use the funding to answer why some children in underserved populations are resilient and how that resiliency can be reproduced to help more students.
In its second year, the Foundation’s BrainStorm pitch competition connects neuroscience researchers directly to audience members who vote on supporting a researcher’s proposed groundbreaking research. The $60,000 pot of prize money will help early-career researchers continue promising work in neuroscience, said MSF executive director Meriam Good.
“We want to invest in early-stage career researchers,” Good told the audience at the Pearl Stable. “We want to encourage them to communicate their science in a way non-scientists can understand and appreciate.”
Nguyen had interned at the Mind Science Foundation in 2010. During his time there, he decided to volunteer at the James Bonham Academy in south San Antonio, working with two second-graders from a lower-income family who read at the kindergarten level. After a year of working with them on their skills, the boys ended second grade reading above their grade level.
“I wondered, what else can we do to support children in poverty besides reading to them,” Nguyen said. “We want to study the brains of resilient children to discover the key to better outcomes for all students.”
Children living in poverty have less access to health care, nutrition, and robust academic support. Despite living under challenging conditions, some children manage to thrive and excel in school.
Nguyen’s research will focus on gaining a deeper understanding of the relationships between resilience, brain structure, and enriching home reading environments in children subject to adversity or poverty. Results could help alleviate the adverse effects of childhood poverty.
The Foundation’s members and board members donated to the pool of prize money for the pitch competition, with many in the audience listening to pitches and voting on research teams. The three finalist research teams each received $15,000 for making it to the final round, with the Vanderbilt team winning the audience’s choice $15,000 award for a total of $30,000.
Justin Hulbert and undergraduate student Michael Greenberg from Bard College’s Memory Dynamics Lab pitched a study examining mindfulness meditation as a way to strengthen self-control and autonomy. Hakwan Lau and Vincent Taschereau-Dumouchel from the University of California Los Angeles Metacognition Lab proposed virtual reality as a potential treatment for anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
BrainStorm’s interactive event included the world-renowned illusionist Mark Mitton who emceed the event. He demonstrated his magic skills to illustrate how we perceive reality and the ways our brains can deceive us.
Last year Dr. Michael Anderson and researcher Subbulakshmi Sankarasubramanian from the University of Cambridge garnered the top award for their proposed research on how the brain suppresses traumatic memories that cause emotional pain. Sankarasubramanian is a graduate student in the cognitive neuroscience research lab Anderson oversees at Cambridge, yet she returned to award the top prize to this year’s winners.
“The response to my winning last year was so overwhelming,” said Sankarasubramanian. “It motivated me even more to do good science.”
Scientific grants rarely get funded without substantial preliminary data. Not only must there be proof of concept — but scientists need research data to demonstrate the likelihood of the project’s success. Awards like the $30,000 BrainStorm prize money can help launch early-stage research often used by scientists to develop a proof of concept — data they can use to apply for more substantial grant funding.
“This prize money is a good start for young Ph.D. candidates,” said Mike MacNaughton, vice president of the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. “It’s seed money to jump-start their research and help build confidence.”
Oilman and philanthropist Tom Slick founded the Mind Science Foundation to accelerate research on consciousness through rigorous scientific exploration. The Brown Foundation, the William Knox Holt Foundation, the Muriel Siebert Foundation, The Smothers Foundation, and Joan Cheever and Dennis Quinn, Cina Forgason, Frost Bank, and Helen Kleberg Groves helped underwrite the BrainStorm pitch competition awards.
Featured image is of Mind Science Foundation executive director Meriam Good awarding a $30,000 check to BrainStorm winner Tin Nguyen. Photo credit Startups San Antonio.