For the two weeks leading up to the NYC Regional Brain Bee competition, Mary Zhuo Ke studied twenty pages of her textbook every day. She modestly mentioned several times that she was not expecting to win, but it was clear that her hard work paid off. “When preparing for this competition, I realized that in order to truly succeed, I had to understand what I was reading. I had to make connections so I would be able to make intelligent guesses if I was not familiar with the answer of a question. During the Brain Bee, I relied on inferences several times.”
Last Saturday at Columbia University, Mary was one of the forty-eight students from thirty-one high schools representing Long Island, Westchester County, and the five boroughs of New York City who gathered to compete in the Brain Bee. The annual contest gives high school students a chance to demonstrate their knowledge of neuroscience in hopes of taking home the grand prize of $500 and a trip to the National competition in March.
Kicking off the program, Kathleen Roina, director of Brain Awareness Week, introduced the keynote speaker, Associate Professor at Columbia Dr. Frances Champagne, who gave a talk on “New Insights into the Developing Brain.” She spoke about the “intense interaction between nature and nurture” and how epigenetics are affected by parents’ life-experiences even before their offspring is conceived. Champagne’s discourse sparked a series of questions from students, whose enthusiastic hand-raising exhibited their hunger for learning.
After Champagne’s lecture, competitors were asked to put away notes and find their places among the rows of white tables at the head of the room. There was hugging, well-wishing, and last sips of water before all the students faced the audience in anticipation. Columbia’s Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D., the program’s moderator and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, began with the first round of questions. A professor of neurology and jazz guitarist, Shadlen was an ideal proctor as he interjected with light-hearted jokes (“The motor neuron unit is not to be confused with Frank Zappa’s daughter.”), anecdotes, and constant encouragement to keep the students’ morale high. He reminded them that “the amount you learned in preparation is a critical part of your accomplishments today.”
As the competition progressed, the questions grew increasingly difficult. At the end of Round Six, every student was eliminated—a first in NYC Brain Bee history. A woman sitting in front of me, who happened to be Theresa Kutza, a teacher from Staten Island’s New Dorp High School, turned around to note, “I’ve been coming here for thirteen years. This has never happened!”
Despite the uncharted territory, the judges, moderator, and event coordinators quickly came up with a solution: students with twenty-five or more correctly answered questions were asked to return to their desks, resulting in four finalists.
Each contestant was remarkably quick to answer correctly, so Shadlen began to mix up the questions in search of a challenge. Eventually, the competition narrowed to two students who were asked to “name the three Ionotropic glutamate receptors.” With the answer being “NMDA, AMPA, and kainate,” a winner was announced.
Seventeen-year-old Mary Zhuo Ke from Cathedral High in Manhattan received the First Place award of $500 along with an all-expenses-paid trip for two to the US National Brain Bee at the University of Maryland in March. Second Place, with a prize of $300, went to Melissa Cao of Long Island’s Bethpage High School, and the $200 Third Place prize was awarded to Akash Pillai of Townsend Harris High School in Queens.
Mary told us that she originally wanted to pursue business. But after participating in both a civil engineering internship at Cooper Union and a robotics competition at City College, she found herself fascinated by the complexities of design and programming through the application of science and imagination. Mary received a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania through the national Questbridge College Match Scholarship and will be attending this fall. In addition to her academic pursuits, Mary is currently the president of her school’s Student Council and plays the tuba in marching band. “I chose the tuba because first, I love to do the unexpected, and second, I wanted to train my lungs…Learning music is similar to learning a new language. It not only challenges my brain but also relaxes me when I listen to beautiful harmonies…” It’s no doubt that she will shine at the national competition next month.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Brain Awareness Week starting March 16 until the 22nd. The Brain Bee Nationals will take place during that weekend. Information on registering for the 2016 Brain Bee will be up online in the fall, or you can email us: BrainBee@dana.org.