Hetince Zhao’s New York City Regional Brain Bee victory was one year in the making. The senior from Townsend Harris High School in Flushing (Queens) began studying for Saturday’s competition in December 2012, but had to wait to put her neuroscience knowledge to use because bad weather cancelled the 2013 Bee. It was worth the wait, as Zhao answered every question put to her correctly to claim the $500 first place prize and a trip to the University of Maryland for the National Brain Bee in March (as part of Brain Awareness Week).
Zhao became the sixth NYC Brain Bee winner (first, second, or third) from Townsend Harris High School, outlasting 38 other participants representing 22 schools in the five boroughs and Westchester County. While certain rounds required competitors to answer just two or three of the five questions correctly in order to advance, Zhao left no doubt by not missing one. She said she was unsure when the neural tube closed, initially writing “fourth week” on her answer card before crossing it out and changing it to “third week.” It was the only question that came close to stumping her, and it’s possible her initial instinct would have also been accepted by the judges.
When Vijay Singh and David Yang, the second- and third-place finishers, didn’t know what the acronym CREB stood for (cAMP response element-binding protein) Zhao was named the winner. She remembered the answer from the Bee’s study book, which she reviewed during winter breaks the past two years. She also attended one of Columbia University’s Brain Bee study sessions (see a guest blogpost describing the sessions in 2012).
Zhao, 17, was first introduced to neuroscience in Shi-bing Shen’s advanced placement psychology class. Upon preparing for the competition she got even more interested in the topic. “I was mostly interested in diseases,” she said. “Neurodegenerative diseases affect a big part of the American population. I had never thought of the mechanisms behind them. If we learn more about them, we could maybe find what causes the diseases and find cures.”
Shen, whom Zhao called an amazing teacher, has seen several students win the Bee. She said she doesn’t hold study sessions but will answer any questions her students may have while preparing. The Townsend Harris students are very self-motivated, she said, and Zhao is no exception. “Hetince is very studious. If she says she’s going to study on her own, I don’t have to worry about her.”
The Brain Bee included a keynote lecture from Daphna Shohamy as well as a family brain fair. DABI member Michael Shadlen moderated the competition and Clarissa Waites, Ai Yamamoto, and Wai Haung served as judges; all are from Columbia University.
Zhao, who said she was very nervous throughout the competition, plans to save the prize money for college. Given her performance on Saturday, she has to be considered a favorite at the national competition.