The first steps on the path to Zach Teitler's career were paved with index cards.
Today Zach Teitler is an associate professor of math. Twenty-four years ago, he was a high school freshman, practicing for the National Science Bowl® (NSB) competition. His team from Albany High School in Albany, California had won the regional round and was headed to Washington, D.C. to compete for the 1993 championship.
"After the surprise of winning the regional competition, we started practicing much more frequently, one or two evenings per week at the coach's house and eventually lunch practices with some other students," says Teitler. "We quickly ran out of practice questions, so we started writing our own questions. We all went through stacks and stacks of index cards, writing new questions every week.
"I remember showing up with piles of index cards with questions. We would shuffle together our cards, and the coach read them to us. You weren't supposed to buzz in on your own questions. If you forgot, or didn't recognize the question, and buzzed in anyway, then the rest of the team would tease you."
Teitler describes himself a very noncompetitive person. "I was much more interested in actually learning about science – geology and earth sciences, and later, physics, computers – than memorizing facts in order to answer questions.
"I had fun learning and practicing - those stacks of index cards with questions! - and to some extent I was able to treat the competitions like practices — just relax and try to answer questions. On the other hand, yes, it was very tense and pretty stressful. I had to make a conscious effort to not kick myself when I missed a question."
The five team members were: Michael C. Wang and Ben Rudiak-Gould covering physics, computers, chemistry, and math; Matt Siebert and Ilkay Can covering biology; and Teitler covering math, geology, and earth sciences.
"When to my astonishment we won the national competition, our school had a rally to greet us on our return. You can guess how wonderful that was for me, as a very shy freshman," recalls Teitler. "The rest of high school still had its trials and tribulations, but that was the moment that everything turned around for me, socially, and started getting a lot better."
Teitler teaches at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho. "My research is in algebraic geometry, which not too surprisingly, involves interplay between geometry, e.g., circles, and algebra, e.g., equations like x^2+y^2=1. Recently this has led me toward some areas that are connected with computer science - on the math side, tensor ranks; on the computer science side, machine learning and P vs. NP," explains Teitler.
Looking back, Teitler sees the effect his NSB experiences had on him.
"Many years later, I've learned that a major part of research in mathematics consists of coming up with the right questions to ask. That requires creativity and broad awareness of the landscape ranging around your research area. And it also requires coming up with many ideas and filtering down to the good ones. The concreteness of (NSB) competition and the assignment to write questions on index cards forced me to break out of my rather passive habit of just reading, studying, and absorbing concepts.
"It goes to show, whatever area of science you cover for your NSB team, take the opportunity to learn about all the others, too! Although, I haven't done anything with glaciers or moraines. At least, not yet?"
"Even though I'm a mathematician, ever since NSB, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for glaciers, lateral moraines, and sand dunes!"
All thanks to those stacks and stacks of index cards.
Please go to Historical Information – National Finals – Profiles of Past Competitors to read more student stories about their NSB experiences.
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Sandra Allen McLean is a Communications Specialist in the Office of Science, firstname.lastname@example.org.