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  • 2017-04-07 10:05:43
  • Article ID: 672640

Champions in Science: Profile of Jonathan Kirzner

For the run-up to the 2017 National Science Bowl(r) Finals April 27 to May 1, this is the second in a series of profiles on previous NSB competitors.

  • Credit: Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

    The Van Nuys High School team that won the 1995 NSB championship: L-R: Coach Art Altschiller, Do Joon Ra, Michael Mazur, Jonathan Kirzner, Michael Chu, and Scott Schneider.

  • Credit: Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kirzner

    Jonathan Kirzner, shown here with his family, is a molecular cell biologist in Los Angeles.

  • Credit: Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kirzner and the LA Dept. of Water and Power

    Jonathan Kirzner, a member of the 1995 Van Nuys High School team that won the National Science Bowl, is profiled

Haiku, hard hats, foam pool noodles, and a four-foot tall trophy, disassembled.

Obviously a group of teenagers were up to something.

Jonathan Kirzner was one of those teenagers, a group of five students representing Van Nuys High School in the 1995 National Science Bowl®. “It was an exciting and emotional experience I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life,” says Kirzner.

He revels in the title “nerd” and loves reminiscing about his friends and their science bowl adventures. “We were a bunch of friends - who tried out for the school’s National Science Bowl® competition. We stuck together and we succeeded,” he recalls. 

They divided up the subject areas for study. Scott Schneider, the team captain, was good in physics, computer science, and math. “He and I are still best friends to this date; Scott was one of my groomsmen at my wedding,” says Kirzner.  Michael Mazur also specialized in physics and enjoyed the pressure of competition.  Do Joon Ra tackled astronomy on his own by reading library books. Michael Chu made a computer program on the school computer network so that they could practice buzzing in.  “So during the competition, once we had enough information, we would buzz in to the questions before they were finished being read.  This secured our chance to get the points and intimidated our opponents.”

Kirzner focused on biology and earth science for the competition.  “I took a college life science textbook and an earth science text book. I studied every day and learned the entire contents - front cover to back.  As practice, I would have people turn to any page in the book and ask me a question on the subject matter.”

After they won their regional competition, the team and coach Art Altshiller headed to Washington, D.C. for the national show-down.

They studied and quizzed each other on the flight. ”We wanted to get as much last-minute studying done as possible.”

Their dedication paid off; the Van Nuys High School team won the 1995 National Science Bowl® championship. 

After the competition, Kirzner and friends met the Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary. Kirzner also had an accomplished seat mate at the awards banquet. “I asked the guy next to me who he was. I had no idea,” recalls Kirzner, “and he said ‘I am Leon Lederman, the head of Fermilab (and Nobel Prize winner in Physics 1988)’ I felt foolish but it was funny.”

About that disassembled trophy… “After Nationals, we had to get our trophy back home to LA. It was huge. We disassembled it to put it in the overhead compartment of the plane.” Upon landing in Los Angeles, the team saw that busloads of their fellow students, the principal, cheerleaders, and their high school marching band were there to greet them. Television and newspaper reporters were also waiting for them.

So they quickly re-assembled the trophy, carried it off the plane, and celebrated with the crowd in the terminal as the band played the school fight song. “They [the media] stuck a microphone in my face and asked, ‘How does it feel?’ I said ‘It feels great!’ We were on the news and in the newspaper.”  

And the hard hats? The haiku and pool noodles? The team’s sponsor, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, had given the team a tour of the department facilities and gave them hard hats with the LADWP logo. Kirzner’s team made good use of those hats. They created a skit for one of the science bowl activities in D.C.

“We incorporated those hard hats into our Science Bowl talent show. We donned our hard hats, along with the pool noodles, recited original haiku, and performed interpretative dances to re-enact seminal experiments in the history of science.” For example, Rutherford’s famous gold-foil experiment was performed as one student rushing at and bouncing off a line of fellow students.

Looking back at his NSB experience, Kirzner says, “It gave me confidence.”

“Every step was amazing: preparing and studying, competing, winning and celebrating our victory. Hitting the buzzer and answering correctly was a dopamine rush to the brain. The results convinced me I could pursue a career in biology.”

Kirzner studied microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, continued at California State University Northridge, earning his M.S. in biology and becoming a molecular cell biologist.

His advice to students today: “I would tell them that science is fun and that even if you don’t win, it is still exciting to put some extra time in to study.  Not everyone can win. It is fun to study with a team that really supports the other members. Your teammates are counting on you and striving after the same goal. There are a lot of friendships that begin in Science Bowl because it is a team sport.”

 

Please go to Historical Information – National Finals – Profiles of Past Competitors to read more student stories about their NSB experiences.

The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://science.energy.gov.

Sandra Allen McLean is a Communications Specialist in the Office of Science, sandra.mclean@science.doe.gov

 

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