Entrepreneur Andrew Mills credits competing in the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl® as the pressure cooker that developed his ability to focus and maintain his poise.
His school, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, had a long history of achievement in the regional National Science Bowl® (NSB) competitions. While still sophomores, Mills and his teammates — Manish Gala, Jacob Paul, Kaushik Roy, and Jason Rubenstein — began to look three years ahead to the ultimate goal: the NSB national championship.
"We (had just) finished high in the regionals. We looked at each other and said, 'We're sophomores now; we can go further.' It was a harmonious group and we enjoyed each other's company," recalls Mills. "As time went on, as we progressed to juniors and seniors, we got more serious. It was not spur of the moment; it was strategic. We thought there was an opportunity."
In their junior year, the Montgomery Blair team members placed third in the championship rounds. "Winning third place was an interesting moment — like standing on an edge. Expectations for our senior year were sky high. That was pressure that we used in a positive way — towards practice, studying, and towards poise.
"Studying the materials was very intensive. I lived close to three different library systems, three jurisdictions, and I got the best library books from each of those. I had the best books in terms of high school science, easily 75 books at home, studying different ones in different ways," says Mills. "My subject areas were physics, computer science, math, and chemistry. Had a big weakness in biology which is ironic because I am in the biological sciences now."
Practices were intense. "We thought that poise was very important to this competition. There are fractions of a second between buzzing in before another team. You have to make calculations and decisions so fast in your head. We put ourselves in stressful situations and tested our poise — so that hopefully when we got to a finals match, we would not be overcome with the pressure.
"One thing we did to build that — when we practiced, we would yell at each other, create distractions, be annoying. We got to the point that no distraction, no surprise, or chance incident could disrupt our train of thought and cause us to lose our concentration."
Mills was so focused that he didn't even notice when his parents came to watch in the early rounds of the finals event. "My parents were in the audience and I never saw them. I remember the buzzer, the moderator, the tables' positions, the board; I don't remember the audience at all."
Under pressure against another very good team, Mills remembers, "We went question for question. We answered right, they answered right, back and forth, very close. Then suddenly the judge said, 'We're out of questions.' We looked at the board — we had been up by one question. That was another good moment; it proved that we had poise, didn't get rattled. We did our best and maintained control of the game."
Mills and teammates continued to do their best through the final rounds and brought home the 1999 National Science Bowl® championship trophy.
After graduation, Mills went to Caltech where he found his NSB win had cachet. "Walking onto the Caltech campus and saying, 'I won the Science Bowl' — that was a good opener. California has a strong Science Bowl community, so being able to say that, I got some street cred."
He was advised to pick a traditional major; he chose instead to earn his B.S. as an independent studies major, covering physics, computer science, math, and chemistry. "Your undergraduate school is a time of great exploration; I tried as many different things as possible. If you have the inclination to do that, I encourage exploration instead of specializing.
"Science is very broad and there are many ways to do science, not just a professor at a university. I'm doing applied science. Engineers use scientific skills all the time. Other professions use scientific thinking. Science is a super-broad area with a lot of great career paths."
While completing his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, he became interested in entrepreneurship.
"I am the founder of four different companies; all have some scientific kernel to them. Each company has its own trajectory."
His most recent enterprise is computer analysis of DNA data. "Genomics is a field where I saw I had something to contribute — where the technological progress afforded an opportunity for someone like me to make an advancement, a big contribution. There is great innovation in genomics that we think is going to happen over the next several years."
Mills offers encouragement to potential NSB competitors.
"The confidence you build from doing the (NSB) competition is priceless. If you apply yourself, make a plan and work towards it — it is possible to get to a high level. I cannot think of any other program that gives you that confidence you have from doing that."
Mills continues to appreciate the structure of the fast-paced Science Bowl matches. "Spur of the moment situations have happened to me all the time, for all of my life. Maybe I have only a couple of seconds to make an impression or to explain something; I have the poise to get my point out in a concise way.
"These are skills that developed from the Science Bowl and the confidence that I got from there. This competition is much more relevant than some people realize."
Additional student stories about their NSB experience can be found on the Profiles of Past NSB Competitors page.
The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science manages the National Science Bowl® and sponsors the NSB finals competition. 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 the Office of Science website.