New York City Regional Brain Bee 2012

by Andrew Kahn

February 7, 2012

New York—When Carmen Irizarry lectured about the energy source of cells to her ninth-grade biology students at Staten Island Technical High School, it’s not hard to imagine some of them thinking, “When am I ever going to need this?” For Danling Chen her attentiveness earned her $500 and a trip for two to the University of Maryland.

Chen, a 16-year-old 11th-grader at Staten Island Tech, correctly identified ATP (adenosine triphosphate) as the chemical energy source of cells to win the New York City Regional Brain Bee on Saturday afternoon. She outlasted 45 competitors from 26 NYC and Westchester County high schools and will compete in the National Brain Bee on Maryland’s campus in March. It was the second year in a row the winning student came from Staten Island Tech.

“She pressed that point,” Chen said about her former teacher. “ATP: the power source for cells.”

In a packed auditorium on the Columbia University campus, family, friends, and teachers looked on as students were quizzed about the brain. Columbia neuroscience professor Michael Goldberg, M.D., moderated the event and three Columbia assistant professors acted as judges, ruling on the validity of student “challenges.”

When Goldberg asked “About how many nerve cells are in the human brain?” the competition was underway. Most of the students scribbled the correct answer (100 billion) on construction paper and, after 30 seconds, showed it to a spotter for verification. Competitors were eliminated if they did not answer the pre-determined number of questions correctly in each round. Roughly half of the field was eliminated after three rounds, when three of five needed to be answered correctly. The final question of the round—What is the name for our ability to consciously remember everyday facts and events?—was especially difficult (answer: declarative memory).

After Round Six, four students remained, meaning the format changed slightly—three wrong answers and you’re out. After seven questions, 11th-grader Fatema Arafa from New Dorp High School claimed third place, winning $200 and a commemorative plaque. Four questions later, and a little more than two hours into the competition, Evan Tsiklidis, a senior at the Bronx High School of Science, got his third strike and settled for second place ($300 and a plaque).

That left Chen, who had no expectations to win when she arrived at the competition, as the Brain Bee champion. In addition to attending the official study session hosted by Columbia students, Chen prepared on her own. “In the weeks before, I really started hardcore cramming. As any high school student knows, cramming is the way to go,” she joked.

Chen has always had an interest in neuroscience, but that passion intensified when she enrolled at the science-focused Staten Island Tech. Her dream is to one day become a doctor. After the Bee, however, she just wanted to go home and activate the inhibitory neurotransmitters in her ventrolateral preoptic nucleus. In other words, she would go to sleep.