Champions in Science Whose Stars Are Still Rising: Profile of Paco Jain, National Science Bowl Champion 1998

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1998 National Science Bowl championship high school team.Photo courtesy of National Science Bowl

Paco Jain (fourth from the right holding the trophy) on the winning team of the 1998 National Science Bowl.

"We were extremely proud," said Paco Jain, "to bring the championship back to Iowa." Friday Night lights? Little League? State soccer championship? No – think bigger.

"It was cool to think that we had beaten big-name schools" to win the National Science Bowl, Jain explained. Jain was one of the five team members from Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa who won their regional tournaments, advanced to, and then won the national competition in 1998. "The DOE (Department of Energy) put so much resources and effort into the events of the national competitions – it made you feel really great."

"The year we won, Bill Nye the Science Guy was there to greet us," said Jain. "The previous year (1997), our team made it to the Nationals; we won fourth place and the celebrity was Leon Lederman (the physicist who won the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1982 and the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics)."

Jain remembers the tournaments leading up to the Nationals. "We had tough competitions all the way up through the state competition levels; it was tough to make it to the Nationals. I remember going head to head with the Ames team – they were our competition at the state level."

Jain had the widest science knowledge on his team - "I had read a lot of popular science books" - so was named the captain, responsible for making the final decision if the team disagreed on an answer. "We had a lot of knowledge in our group," said Jain. "In 1998, our coach was our biology teacher, Margaret Christiansen. We practiced maybe two hours a week to get a sense of areas we were lacking in. Then we divided up the areas, researched, and came back to the team and made a presentation. Whoever studied the topic would be the designated expert. The practices were fun – we had popcorn and soda. Practice was a lot about buzzing-in, buzzing-in correctly, and buzzing-in a lot. The buzzing-in is an underrated aspect of the competition."

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A current picture of 1998 National Science Bowl Champion Jason Tumlinson.Photo courtesy of Paco Jain

Present day photo of Paco Jain.

The rules state that contestants should wait for the judges to completely read the question, and then press the buzzer, hoping to beat the other team’s buzz-in. A contestant is allowed to interrupt the judge before the question is completely read, to buzz-in first. The contestant must then answer the question, hoping s/he understood the question sufficiently to answer it correctly. "One round in the Nationals – we were behind, losing badly and had to make an incredible comeback," said Jain. "I remember I buzzed-in after the judge had barely begun the question, said maybe two words, but we got the points. We were desperate and buzzing-in quickly was the only way to get points and get back in the game." And come back they did.

In that year, the team’s prize for winning the national competition was a trip to attend the 48th meeting of Nobel Prize Winners, followed by an extra week to explore Western Europe.

Jain had traveled a lot with his dad but this trip was his first to Europe. Jain went on to do his undergraduate degree in physics at Stanford University. He has completed work towards his Ph.D. and works for Wolfram Research, in Champaign, Illinois.

"Being a NSB Champion becomes your identity – people google you and discover you met Bill Nye the Science Guy," said Jain. "When I got to grad school, people would ‘Google’ me and bring it up.

"I really appreciate how much effort the DOE puts into making it a great experience for the students. The National Science Bowl is a lot of work and a lot of fun." And to the students, Jain advised, "Enjoy it while you are there."


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,