Judges for the Intel Science Talent Search asked Mimi Yen hard questions, and she didn't know the answers to any of them. But Mimi was pleased.
"It was a good kind of brutal," Mimi, 17, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, the morning after she was awarded third place in the prestigious science competition. "The questions are geared at looking at the thought process about things I didn't know the answers to. I came out feeling foolish."
Still, her thinking was smart enough to persuade the judges to lift her out of a pack of 40 finalists from across the United States and award her a top spot in the national challenge. The award comes with $58,500 in scholarships toward college.
Two other high school students from New York City also made it to the finals.
Mimi, a Stuyvesant High School senior who lives in Brooklyn, spent two years after school and on weekends researching the genetics and mating behavior of a microscopic worm. According to a news release from Intel, "Mimi believes that through research such as hers, we may better understand the genes that contribute to behavioral variations in humans."
The finalists were bombarded with questions by the scientists who judged the competition during four sessions, 10 to 15 minutes long. Mimi and the other finalists also each made two posters for an exhibition on Sunday at the National Geographic Society buildiing, where they explained their projects to the public.
It was a learning experience every step of the way, she said. Students were able to talk informally with scientists about diverse career paths and share their love of science.
President Obama shook Mimi’s hand and spoke to the finalists -- which she found inspiring, she said, especially when he talked about how women were gaining more leadership roles in math and science.
It wasn't all work. The finalists scattered for scavenger hunts in museums, went bowling and pulled a late night hanging out.
Her parents and her research mentor, Matthew Rockman, an assistant professor of biology at New York University, joined her in Washington for the awards dinner on the final night.
Mimi, who was born in Honduras and reared speaking Cantonese, still isn't sure that her parents understand her work. "My Chinese is not that good," she said. "It's really hard to explain."
In a phone interview, her mother, Ai Ming Li, said through an interpreter: "From when she was young, she had to be self-motivated. We couldn't push or teach her, so her teachers were important. She liked to learn, and so she always found a way."
A celebration dinner with relatives is in the works. Nothing extravagant -- Mimi said she just wanted "Mom's cooking."
The schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, praised her accomplishment.
"This is a prestigious honor recognizing the country’s top high school seniors who will be tomorrow’s leaders and help address the world’s most pressing issues," he said in a statement. "We should all aspire to Mimi's commitment to education and dedication to her community."
Mimi and the other New York City finalists, Huihui Fan, 17, another Stuyvesant senior, and Danielle Goldman, 17, a senior at the Bronx Science High School of Science, returned with a wealth of experience to share with their schools.
"I think the problem with some students and science is that they get stuck and give up," Mimi said. "It's important to retain confidence even if it seems like you won't win something. Science is not for the acknowledgment, but about the work itself and the struggle that went into it."
In the meantime, she’s helping freshmen at Stuyvesant learn how to pick worms for research, and she brought back some suggestions for the next Stuyvesant students who make the finals.
Over the summer, Mimi will try to complete her research project in Dr. Rockman's lab. She also wants to help Chinese immigrants in her community get better housing. "My family and I suffered through the experience," she said, "and it would be nice to give back."
Mimi, who is planning to head to Yale in the fall, said she was excited about the university's growing science program. She wants to continue research, she said, but not on worms.
"Something more applicable to humans," she said.