International Brain Bee winner: In her own words

You know, for the newly
proclaimed “world’s best brain,” I don’t really feel any different.

Sure, I now have a hefty prize,
congratulations from my friends and family and something incredibly impressive
to put on my college applications. But I’m not sure how I feel about being the
high-school world champion in neuroscience. I suppose it would be relieved and
surprised—relieved that the stress of the competition is over and that I did my
absolute best, surprised that I even managed to get to the international finals
in the first place. Heck, I didn’t think I would win DC
regionals
. Me, a world champion? Little old me?

Umbrellar edited

No, I don’t think I had due
confidence in myself at any level of the competition, especially since I first
found out about the Brain Bee from Elena Perry, last
year’s international champion
. She had watched the competition for the past
two years and then spent a month making a thousand flash cards out of every
question that could possibly be construed from the study materials.

But I figured it was worth a
shot. I’ve loved neuroscience ever since I knew what it was, and here was a way
I could demonstrate that passion to others, seeing as there’s very little way
to do so otherwise. One can’t really create mouse models of schizophrenia for
the school science fair. But I had no idea my love of all things brain would
have such a payoff.

I feel a bit obligated here to
explain how I got into brains in the first place. After all, it’s not your
average teenage hobby. I suppose the philosophical reason is that I value
science as the most rational and complete form of knowledge, and I find the
human mind the most mysterious and fascinating thing in existence, so a
scientific way of describing the mind is pretty much the coolest thing ever.

A bunch of things are almost
equally as cool, though, such as quantum physics and evolutionary biology, so I
guess it’s my nurture as well as my nature that caused me to choose
neuroscience. My mom is a psychiatrist, and whenever I stopped by her office I
was endlessly intrigued by her bookshelf and busied myself reading The
Child’s Conception of the World
and the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV
. Also, in my tweenage
years, I had discovered the writings of Oliver
Sacks
and loved his true-life stories; I would try to guess the disorders
the patients were suffering from, look up the diseases online and even write my
own stories where characters would suffer from the same problems. Even in
childhood I gradually began to see every part of society around me in the light
of neuroscience and found this view of the world much to my liking.

Thus I figured I’d put my
neurological knowledge and good memory for facts to the test in the DC regional
brain bee. I was just trying it out this year, I told myself, and if I didn’t
win I would try again seriously next year. To my shock, I managed to answer all
but one of the questions in the local bee correctly.

Accepting my check with wonder,
I realized I would have to really devote myself to cramming for the U.S.
national competition a month later. This time, knowing that there would be
neuroanatomy and patient diagnosis portions as well as simple factual
questions, I decided to get to know the contest inside and out. To do this, I
turned to the best local source of Brain Bee knowledge, one Elena Perry. I
barraged her with questions on how the different rounds operated, what her
secrets for success were, whether we needed to know all those tiny cranial
nerves and how on earth one could diagnose neurological AIDS. Elena obligingly
answered all my questions and even lent me her neuroscience textbook and
plastic brain models, for which I am completely indebted to her.

As well as my personal knack for
brains and Elena’s help, I was armed with the total confidence of my family,
who consider me their super genius child. Even my dad, who is rarely
enthusiastic about anything, urged me on, telling me, “the only person that can
defeat you is you.” So I approached the U.S. nationals with a lot of anxiety
but faith that I stood a chance of winning if I did my best. I was comforted
when I met the competitors from the other states—not that I felt better than
them, but that they all were so friendly and good-spirited that the tension in
the air was completely dispersed. Despite a few pitfalls during the
competition—I was only in third place before the last round and had to calm my
nerves with a dinner of shrimp pasta—I pulled ahead in the final lightning
round (which greatly resembled the DC regional contest). In the glimmer of
camera lights, trophies and relief, I accepted my laurels and beamed.

I had a few months to laze about
and spent half my prize on video games before I was confronted with internationals. I worried that
I had forgotten the information, or that I hadn’t given myself enough time to
study or that the other nations were taking this more seriously than I was.
(Though I wasn’t by any means flippant about it!) But this time I had more of a
feeling that I could really do it. Sure enough, I stayed in the lead throughout
and ended up winning by two points.

So here I am, tapping away at my
computer amidst my mess of a desk, an international champion. I’m not sure what
that means to me, and I’m even less sure what it means to you, dear reader. But
I do know one thing: that it was a lot of fun getting here through simply
indulging my passion for brains. To all who aspire to a similar path: good
luck!

Julia Chartove, who will enter her senior year at Richard Montgomery
High School in Rockville, Md., this fall, won the D.C. Regional Brain Bee
contest before placing first at the U.S. National and International Brain Bee
contests.

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