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How a High School Student Discovered Neuroscience at Columbia University

Starting with a general interest in biology, Hunter College High School student Ian Shen-Costello seized the opportunity to immerse himself in a more specialized field when he entered the three-week Summer Immersion program for high school students at Columbia University.

He dove into neurology and sought out mentorship from two Columbia neuroscientists. Based on work he developed as a student in the program, Ian made a video that qualified him as one of just 15 finalists out of 10,000 applicants for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Khan Academy. Now Ian is following through on his new passion for neuroscience by applying for research internships.

Recently we spoke with him about his experience in the program.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

I am 16 years old and a junior at Hunter College High School. I live in Brooklyn, New York. I have a great interest in science, especially biology. Although I have always enjoyed science, I think I first fell in love with biology during my freshman year at Hunter. I enjoyed learning about the various complex systems that make up the human body. When I came across the opportunity to explore further in a specific field, neurology, at Columbia, I immediately became interested and applied.

What made Columbia your top choice?

I was looking for a summer program that offered interesting science courses during the summer. The opportunity to study at an institution as prestigious as Columbia was attractive. I predicted (successfully) that the professors and facilities available to participants would be world-class.

However, the main aspect of the Summer Program for High School Students that compelled me to apply was its broad and global philosophy. I made friends with students from around the world, from Midtown and New Jersey to Athens, Shanghai, and Madrid. It was truly an eye-opening experience to interact with people from other regions of the world outside my bubble of New York City.

"My professor said, ‘We are going to teach this class like a college course.’ From that moment, I knew I would love it."

What was it like studying with Columbia neuroscientists?

My class was taught by professors Daniel Barulli and Stephen Keeley. I remember the very first day of class, Dr. Keeley said, “We are going to teach this class like a college course.” From that moment, I knew I would love it. The class moved at a challenging yet exciting pace that captivated and engaged the entire class. We covered almost every topic in the vast field of neuroscience, including the chemical reactions of action potentials, neurotransmitters, the effects of drugs on the brain, and various brain disorders.

To reinforce what we had learned in the morning lectures, the afternoons were dedicated to smaller group discussions. We divided into two groups corresponding to one of the professors; I was assigned to be in professor Keeley’s group. In these groups, Dr. Keeley not only exhibited his profound knowledge of neuroscience but also was very amiable and easy to talk to. I always felt comfortable asking him questions about my project or to explain something further about the previous lesson.

Can you give some detail about the lab work and experiments you did?

We did many experiments in small groups including measuring our reflexes, depth perception, or estimating the size of our optic nerve, which corresponds to your blind spot because of the hole it forms on your retina. In addition, in our brain anatomy unit, we dissected a sheep’s brain. It was very helpful and intriguing to see the brain structures in real life, and not idealized in a perfect diagram. The main project of the course, however, was a group presentation of a peer-reviewed scientific article. Dr. Keeley explained that understanding, presenting, and writing about published scientific studies is a crucial skill to have, regardless of what field of science you wish to pursue. In a group with three other students, I read, interpreted, and presented an article that dealt with the CADM1 gene and its effect on obesity. The methods that the scientists used, including gene knockouts and Cre-Lox recombination, were difficult to understand at first. Dr. Keeley clearly explained everything so that we were confident in our abilities to present it.

It was through the multitude of experiments, labs, articles, and projects that I truly developed an interest in neuroscience. It was also in this smaller group where I discovered the extraordinary method of neuron stimulation called optogenetics.

I found an article by Dr. Steve Ramirez that described an experiment he conducted in which memories of mice were altered and deleted. I was instantly curious. How exactly does it work? Could this be used to modify human memories as well? After doing more research, I familiarized myself with the procedure and applications of optogenetics enough to decide to make a video to explain it.

I understand you chose to discuss optogenetics for your Breakthrough Junior Challenge submission. Can you discuss that?

The Breakthrough Junior Challenge in an international science competition funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Khan Academy. The challenge is to create a three-minute video that explains a science or math concept in simple terms. Last year, almost 10,000 high school students from around the world submitted videos and I was honored to be chosen as one of 15 finalists.

The Breakthrough Challenge offered the perfect combination of two of my favorite interests: film and science. I had been thinking of entering since 2015, but the experience I had at Columbia under the guidance of Dr. Keeley and Dr. Barulli enabled me to be successful in the Challenge. As I said earlier, I came across optogenetics during their course which was the chosen topic of my video. More importantly, however, they piqued my interest in neuroscience and the human brain. Through this Challenge, I hope to share a significant and fascinating aspect of neuroscience.

What’s next for you?

Currently, through a science research seminar at my school, I am seeking a professional lab to intern in for next summer in order to get hands-on experience in neuroscience research. I am inquiring in many labs in New York City, including some at Columbia. As a junior, I am also beginning to think about college applications. I am strongly considering Columbia as a potential school because taking the neuroscience course was such a stimulating and positive experience. Although I am not sure what exactly I plan to do professionally, and am open-minded to explore other fields, I expect my future career to involve either science research or medicine.