Fifty-five high school students sat silently in a Columbia University auditorium on Saturday afternoon, listening to the first question: “About how many cells are in the human brain?”
The room echoed with a slight scraping sound as the students scribbled out their answers on brightly colored sheets of paper, then fell silent again. “The answer,” Michael E. Goldberg, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia, said into a microphone, “is 100 billion.”
It was the first of many questions to test students’ knowledge of neuroscience in this year’s New York City Regional Brain Bee, which drew students from each borough and Westchester County.
The contest works a bit like its more familiar cousins, the spelling and geography bees: Eight rounds, five questions each. Thirty seconds to answer. Spelling, however, doesn’t count.
The first two rounds proved fairly easy. Students needed to get only two of the five questions correct to move on, and only a few of them were eliminated. But the competition picked up during the third and fourth rounds, when students needed three correct answers for each round.
Dr. Goldberg, a diminutive man in a tweed coat with black-framed glasses and thick white hair, seemed to relish his role as moderator and often supplied scientific asides to the questions.
“What disease is characterized by sudden jerky movements called chorea?” Dr. Goldberg asked in the fourth round. “From the Greek word for dance,” he added helpfully, “like Terpsichore or choreography.” (The answer, for those keeping score: Huntington’s disease.)
Some of the questions seemed purposely designed to embarrass the bee’s awkward teenage participants. “Name three sex hormones,” Dr. Goldberg said at one point.
“Oxytocin?” one girl asked after the 30 seconds had elapsed. Too broad, Dr. Goldberg ruled.
“Follicle-stimulating hormone?” a boy asked.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Dr. Goldberg said.
Other questions hit a bit too close to home, like “Name two stress hormones.” The 22 students remaining at that point were probably feeling many of them.
As the contest wore on, the answers grew more exotic: Golgi tendon organ, periodic limb movements of sleep, oligodendrocytes. When all but four students had been eliminated, the Brain Bee entered its final round. Three wrong answers and students were sent home.
The final round came down to Evan Tsiklidis of Bronx High School of Science and Danling Chen of Staten Island Technical High School. Ms. Chen, a junior with bobbed hair and braces, pulled off a win by correctly naming the chemical energy source of cells. (The answer: ATP.)
Ms. Chen, 16, said she remembered the answer from Carmen Irizarry’s ninth grade biology class at Staten Island Tech. “She pressed that point,” Ms. Chen said. “ATP, power source for cells!”
Ms. Chen won $500 and a trip for two to the University of Maryland to compete in the National Brain Bee in March. She’d like to attend medical school someday, she said, but her plans for Saturday night were less ambitious. “I’m going to sleep,” she said.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post contained incorrect information about the number of brain cells.