"I remember we were in the giant auditorium – all the participants, all the parents were there," says Francois Greer. It was 2006, and his school, Pennsylvania's State College Area High School, was playing for the championship of the National Science Bowl® against the California North Hollywood High School team. Greer was nervous.
His team had competed in the previous year's National Science Bowl® (NSB), reaching the national competition, but "we lost and I felt like it was my fault. I had buzzed in first on a math question, I got it wrong, and an older teammate knew the (right) answer."
Now this year didn't look promising either. "What happened right out of the gate – North Hollywood stunned us. The score was something like 52 to 18 at the half!"
During the break, "I was feeling pretty bad about how we did in the first half. Our alternate, Galen, and our coach came and gave us a pep talk: Take risks, go all out, leave it all on the field," recalls Greer. "We knew the worst reaction was to be too timid."
The second half began.
"I remember a turning point – when the other team buzzed in, interrupting the moderator, and got the answer wrong."
Teams are allowed to interrupt. If the student feels sure s/he knows the answer, s/he buzzes in early before the question is completely read. This is actually a good tactic that blocks your opponent. But only if you answer correctly.
North Hollywood's interruption and wrong answer gave State College its chance. The moderator began to re-read the question.
Greer and his teammates had prepared for this moment. "Wait patiently – we had trained that when the other team gets it wrong, wait patiently." Their strategy was to use the time while the moderator re-reads the entire question: to listen carefully, to think about and be sure of the answer.
After North Hollywood missed it, Greer believed he knew the correct answer. He thought about not waiting. He looked over at his team captain.
Their steadfast plan was always to wait while the question was reread in its entirety. That was the safe way, the smart way to play.
The clock was running; they didn't have a lot of time left in the match.
What if he got it wrong?
He knew if he interrupted and answered it wrong—by not waiting for the question to be completely reread, by not following the team plan— "it would be the end of me."
He was right.
By the process of elimination, Greer had figured out which was the correct multiple choice answer. "I remember that was the turning point. We ran the floor, got all the questions, and won by maybe 10 points," he recalls. "It was like something out of a movie to come back in the second half and win."
"I remember getting up the next morning, thinking it was a dream."
After graduating high school in 2007, Greer completed a bachelor's degree at Harvard University, then his Ph.D. in mathematics at Stanford University.
Today, Greer is an assistant professor of theoretical mathematics at the Stony Brook University Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. "My focus is trying to prove new mathematical theorems – statements of higher dimensional geometry. At this point, my work is so theoretical it is hard to point to a single application."
He encourages students to compete in the National Science Bowl® as a way to be distinctive. "Even if you check all the boxes for getting into college, I think NSB is a big deal, an important way to stand out."
Profiles of Past Competitors: please go to https://science.energy.gov/wdts/nsb/about/historical-information/profiles-of-past-competitors/ to read more student stories about their NSB experiences.
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 https://science.energy.gov.
Sandra Allen McLean is a Communications Specialist in the Office of Science, firstname.lastname@example.org.