The battle of wits came down to the fifth and final challenge in the 2015 International Brain Bee, a two-day neuroscience competition for high school students held in August in Cairns, a resort town in Queensland, Australia.
Jade Pham, a junior at James Ruse Agricultural High School in New South Wales, Australia, and Soren Christensen, a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA, were tied going into the question and answer session. They and 22 other teen prodigies from around the world assembled on a stage in front of a live audience to answer 25 questions about neuroscience.
In the final tally, Soren, 15, came within half a point of being crowned world champion. But second place was just as sweet, he says, and worth the months of intense study and qualifying events.
A BEE IN HIS BONNET
The International Brain Bee was founded in 1998 by Norbert Myslinski, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, to promote interest in the brain and inspire high school students to pursue careers in neuroscience. Currently, there are 150 local Brain Bee chapters in 30 countries, and 30,000 annual competitors. Winners of regional Brain Bees qualify for their country's national championship. National winners go on to compete in the international event.
Soren's journey began in February, when he won the Regional DC Brain Bee, a contest sponsored by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) and based on Brain Facts, an SfN publication about the brain for young students. In March, he bested 51 other neuroscience enthusiasts to win the National Brain Bee at the University of Maryland. The intense two-day competition includes a written section and a lab section with real human brains. Students are asked to identify nervous system tissue using microscopic images, analyze magnetic resonance imaging scans, and diagnose a patient. The breadth of their knowledge is then tested in a final question and answer session.
Soren walked away with two trophies, one for him and one for his school; a summer internship at Georgetown University Medical Center arranged by the SfN; and $1,500 in prize money. He also qualified to represent the United States at the International Brain Bee.
In one section of the five-part contest in Cairns, Soren inspected a brain and named its different structures. In the histology challenge, he examined slides showing different types of cells and identified their structure and function. In the short-answer challenge, he selected a topic from a list of prompts and wrote a one-page essay, complete with labeled diagrams of the brain. In the fourth section, he and his fellow competitors watched videos of patients describing their symptoms, then formulated a diagnosis. The event concluded with the live Q&A, where Jade eked out her victory.
SET FOR THE FUTURE
Soren's experience in Australia only reinforced his desire for a future career in neuroscience. “I want to find ways to stop these horrible diseases,” he says.