New York City Regional Brain Bee 2011

by Andrew Kahn

March 2, 2011

New York, March 2, 2011—In the 2009 New York City Regional Brain Bee, the winner had placed third in the previous year’s competition. Last year, the co-winners had finished second and fourth the year before. Tuesday evening, Sun Young Chung of Staten Island Technical High School followed up her third place finish in 2010 by winning the 10th annual Brain Bee.

“It was about redemption,” said the 18-year-old Chung. “I wanted to be first this year. I guess it was just that competitive energy in me. I’m a senior, so I wanted to go out with a bang.”

She did so by outlasting a record number of competitors at New York University’s Kimmel Center: a total of 50 students from 31 New York City and Westchester high schools. Yonkers High School senior Selja Kumar, 17, finished second, and Tu Pham, a 16-year-old junior from New Dorp High School (Staten Island), came in third.

Chung won $500 and an all-expenses paid trip for two to the University of Maryland for the National Brain Bee on March 18-19. Kumar took home $300 and Pham earned $200. The event was hosted by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and co-sponsored by NRTA: AARP’s Educator Community and the Society for Neuroscience.

Each round of the competition included five questions, derived from two textbooks (Brain Facts: A Primer on the Brain and Nervous System and Neuroscience: Science of the Brain). The students must answer a certain number of questions correctly to advance. Once the field is whittled down, participants are eliminated after accumulating three wrong answers.

Dana Alliance member Michael E. Goldberg, M.D., David Mahoney Professor of Brain and Behavior at Columbia University, served as the judge for the second straight year. He was assisted by Sarah Steenrod, Ph.D., and Linus Sun, Ph.D., M.D., both of Columbia.

Goldberg stood at a lectern and asked the questions. The completion of each question was immediately followed by the scratching of Sharpie markers on construction paper. Students had 30 seconds to write their responses.

If their answers did not exactly match the answer given by Goldberg, the students could challenge to see if their response was also acceptable. For one question in the sixth round, when 16 students remained, one student’s differing answer was approved, prompting Goldberg to say: “Whoever wrote that was smarter than the people who wrote the answer.”

In the elimination round, the six remaining participants were knocked out one by one. When Pham could not identify GABA as the neurotransmitter that gets depleted by Huntington’s disease, he claimed third place. Pham has to be the favorite for the 2012 Brain Bee given the recent history of the success of former winners.

One question later, the 43rd of the night, Kumar was eliminated, giving the title to Chung. Kumar was not able to come up with the answer suprachiasmatic nucleus to the question what is the small group of cells in the hypothalamus that controls our sleep-wake rhythm.

Goldberg was impressed with the level of competition. “These kids were amazing,” he said. “By the time they get here they’re winners because they’ve learned so much. The kind of enthusiasm they generate for science is unbelievable.”

Chung said she used a lot of note cards to study for the competition, and one of her main goals in competing was to make her mother (who was in the audience) proud. Chung is thrilled to be heading to Maryland for the National Brain Bee. “I’ve never really left New York City so the experience will be amazing.”