Top D.C. Region Students Battle at Brain Bee

by Aalok Mehta

February 20, 2009

Julia Chartove, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., didn’t know the answer to the final question of the 2009 Brain Bee in Washington, D.C.

She wrote clorazepham, not clomipramine, in response to the question “Name the serotonergic antidepressant that was the first effective treatment developed for obsessive-compulsive disorder in people.”

But it didn’t matter, because that was the first incorrect answer she had given in the entire competition. Sitting next to her, meanwhile, the only other remaining contestant—Tarun Kakumanu of Rockville High School—had given his third wrong response of the finals. He was out, and Chartove was the winner.

Chartove, 16, took home not just the $250 first prize but also an all-expenses-paid trip to the U.S. National Brain Bee. Kakumanu, 17, received $150, and Farrell Sheehan, 15, the third-place winner from St. Anselm’s Abby School in Washington, walked away with $100.

In all, 23 students from 14 high schools in Maryland and the District of Columbia took part in the Feb. 18 competition, one of many such regional competitions this month for high school students. The winners will gather at University of Maryland on March 20 and 21 for the National Brain Bee as part of Brain Awareness Week, an international campaign to increase awareness about brain research sponsored by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

 “I’m pretty excited,” Chartove said, finally cracking a small smile after receiving her prize. “And relieved, too. It’s a shiny thing to put on my college applications, and an opportunity to go on to do more shiny things.”

After each five-question round, students were eliminated if they had missed a certain number of questions. The quiz material came from Brain Facts, a 74-page primer on the brain and nervous system published by the Society for Neuroscience, one of the event’s sponsors.

The first two sets proved no problem for any of the contestants, but then students slowly began falling short. The sixth round proved especially brutal, narrowing the field from 10 to just Chartove and Kakumanu.

This forced judge Emmeline Edwards, deputy director of the Division of Extramural Research at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, to hold a brief runoff for the eight eliminated students to determine the third-prize winner. Then Edwards began the final round, in which three wrong answers eliminated a contestant.

Throughout it all, Chartove maintained a look of intense, focused concentration. After the competition, scorers praised all of the students for their impressive knowledge, but singled out Chartove in particular for missing only one of the contest’s 34 official questions.

Chartove said she had come into the competition feeling unprepared—“honestly, I wish I had given myself more time”—but then proceeded to rattle off in rapid-fire succession some of the reasons she did so well: typing up 20 pages of notes from Brain Facts, reading multiple books by Oliver Sacks, studying for the psychology Advanced Placement exam and being the daughter of a psychiatrist.

She added that she is looking forward to taking a break from neuroscience for a few days, but that she is “a little intimidated” by the idea of heading to Baltimore for the national competition.

That’s may be because Chartove has big shoes to fill. Last year’s D.C. Brain Bee winner, Elena Perry, went on to win not only the national contest but the International Brain Bee in Montreal, securing a research internship at the National Institutes of Health.

Perry hails not just from the same school as Chartove, but also the same grade.

In addition to the Society for Neuroscience, the Washington, D.C., Brain Bee was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, and NRTA: AARP’s Educator Community.