D.C. Regional Brain Bee
Left to Right: D.C. Regional Brain Bee Moderator, Benjamin Walker; Margaret Wang (Montgomery Blair High School) in third place; Sophia Diggs-Galligan (School Without Walls High School) in first place; Noor Amin (Sidwell Friends School) in second place.

A few days a week, you can find DC high schooler Sophia Diggs-Galligan working in a lab alongside experienced scientists analyzing the structural differences in the brains of humans’ closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos.

Given her early interest in neuroscience — reading the published works of famed neurologist Oliver Sacks at a young age — and her continued dedication to the subject during her high school career, Sophia’s victory at the DC Regional Brain Bee earlier this month may not have surprised many who know her.

“Sophia’s enthusiasm is genuine and infectious,” said Chet Sherwood, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, in whose lab Sophia works.

Sophia was one of 16 students who tested their neuroscience knowledge February 9 during the DC Regional Brain Bee, a question-and-answer competition open to local high schoolers and hosted by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). Local neuroscientists from institutions including NIH, George Washington University, Georgetown University, and the University of Maryland volunteered as judges for the event.

Norbert Myslinski, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, who received SfN’s Science Educator Award in 2016, founded the Brain Bee in 1999 to inspire young students to pursue careers in biomedical sciences. About 30,000 students from more than 40 countries participate in regional and national brain bees, with the winners taking part in the international contest. To compete, students learn a broad spectrum of complex biological information from the Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Facts book.

Ben Fiore-Walker, manager of the Department of Diversity Programs at the American Chemical Society and a former neuroscience professor at Georgetown University, moderated the DC Brain Bee and has been at the heart of local competition for about 15 years. His longtime involvement has enabled him to witness the stimulating and encouraging experiences of many students. He said neuroscience can spark a curiosity in the sciences, which students might otherwise find intimidating.

This year, three young women took the top three spots in the DC Brain Bee. Returning competitor Maggie Wang of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., came in third place. In her free time Maggie works with kids with autism at her local recreation center, and she plans to return to the competition again next year. Second-place winner Noor Amin of Sidwell Friends School brought levity to the competition when she pulled out and put on what appeared to be a karate headband at the start of the final round. And Sophia, a junior from School Without Walls High School in DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, came out on top.

Just steps away from Sophia’s school is Sherwood’s Laboratory of Evolutionary Neuroscience. Sherwood said it is very rare for him to take on a high school student, but after Sophia impressed him in an informational interview, he welcomed her to participate in his lab.

Sophia said she’s most interested in, “the ramifications that neuroscience can have on social issues, on philosophy, on the way we understand consciousness, and what it means to be human. I’m very much interested in how the small chemical details of the brain can affect the larger picture.”

Sophia, who aspires to be a neurobiologist one day, will go on to compete in the U.S. National Brain Bee March 17-19 in Baltimore.