LA middle school students performing brain surgery? Well, virtually.

Phantom skull used in virtual surgery
Phantom skull used in virtual surgery
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC
Phantom skull used in virtual surgery
Brainworks kids conducting experiments
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC
Phantom skull used in virtual surgery
Brainworks student greeting ready for virtual brain surgery
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC
Phantom skull used in virtual surgery
Brainworks presentation
Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 1.0MB

Nearly 130 middle school students held real surgical instruments, looked into the DNA of bananas and conducted virtual brain surgery. It all happened at the Brainworks one-day program sponsored by the Cedars Sinai Department of Neurosurgery.

“They show you how to take out a brain tumor from, like, the head and how you have to use precise tools to do it," says aspiring doctor Mike Hewitt, an 8th grader who attends Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Middle School in south Los Angeles.

Those precise tools include a real-life 3D-imaging machine and a $500,000 microscope that the kids used to conduct tumor removal from a phantom skull.

At another experiment station in the same room, Victoria Guardi and Ariah Johnson, both 8th graders at James A. Foshay Learning Center, ranked the plastic tub of sheep brains as their favorite part of the event.

"Because you actually get to touch it and you get to see what’s really on the sheep brain," says Guardi.

“And it gives you and idea of what you’re brain is like, too, because it’s similar," added Johnson.

The students, from several lower income Los Angeles schools, quizzed the five attending brain doctors with such questions as:

"How exactly to brain aneurysms form, exactly?"

"Does the brain feel pain during surgery?"

"How much does the human brain weigh?"

And the burning question of the day? "How much money do doctors make in a year?" That query from a female student in the audience drew a round of laughter and applause - but no clear answer.

The students, too, were quizzed in a round of Family Feud, Brainworks-style, featuring neurosurgeon, Dr. Chirag Patil as host.

"First question," says Patil, "name three parts of the brain."

About a dozen kids raised their hands and the team got the three answers, cerebellum, brain stem and cerebrum, correct, causing Patil to proclaim: "We’ve got neuroscientists in the room already."

"What we want to do is expose them to the wonders of science, the wonders of medicine, says Dr. Keith Black, founder of the Brainworks program and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "To let them understand how much fun we have and how much joy we have each day coming to work, being physicians having opportunity to help people, opportunity to potentially save lives.

Black says it's his hope the Brainworks event will someday become a nationwide program that will encourage middle school students everywhere to consider a career in science and medicine.