Champions in Science: Profile of Ian Scheffler, National Science Bowl® Champion, 2008

Click to enlarge photo.Enlarge Photo
From Left to right: Ian Scheffler, Marino Di Franco, Sasha (Alexandre) Boulgakov, and Dimitry Petrenko competed in the National Science Bowl® in Washington, D.C. for Santa Monica High School in 2008.

Photo courtesy of DOE National Science Bowl®

From left to right: Ian Scheffler, Marino Di Franco, Sasha (Alexandre) Boulgakov, and Dimitry Petrenko competed in the National Science Bowl® in Washington, D.C. for Santa Monica High School in 2008.

"I'm a very competitive person," explains Ian Scheffler. "I was so hyped up — I stood up and kicked my chair over like it was WWE — I kind of howled.

"People looked at me.

"I quietly picked up the chair, turned it over, and sat down."

Scheffler, a senior at Santa Monica High School in California, had just answered the final question in the seventh elimination round of the 2008 National Science Bowl® (NSB).

Today Scheffler is a writer in NYC; his recent book tells about his latest competitive experiences: mastering the Rubik's Cube puzzle and participating in "speedcubing" events.

But in 2008, his mind, body and soul were focused on the next science bowl question. The Santa Monica team had won all their matches in the Round Robin Tournament, earning a great seed for the next — the Double Elimination Tournament Rounds One through Seven. The team — Sasha (Alexandra) Boulgakov, Marino Di Franco, team captain Dimitry Petrenko, and Scheffler — believed they had a clear path to the next day's championship event, Double Elimination Rounds Eight and Nine.

But they weren't there yet.

In their first match of the day, Santa Monica lost against their perennial rival, North Hollywood High School. "This put us in the hardest possible route to the finals; we had to win every single (remaining) match and re-meet North Hollywood at some point."

The rounds continued.

At the end of the evening, Santa Monica was still in the competition, but on the brink of elimination. Playing against a team they had beaten before, Scheffler and his teammates were having their worst game ever.

At the half, Santa Monica was down, something like 50 to 120.

As the half-time two-minute break began, Scheffler took paper and pencil and very calmly figured how many points were left in the match. He saw a Santa Monica win was possible, just possible.

So he put on his game face, showed the guys his calculations and said, "We have to win almost every point left. Be very careful; we have to get every point." He remembers projecting a very calm, matter-of-fact demeanor. "That's all we have to do."

Today Scheffler laughs at his younger self, amazed at the confidence and calmness. "That was crazy, right? — get every possible point, every answer right — no mistakes, no blurts, no misstatements?

"We even challenged two answers; it's a scary moment when a team member challenges. The judge goes off to a separate room (for consultation). The players sit and wait for his return and decision. There's plenty of time to second-guess yourself."

Both times the judge ruled in Santa Monica's favor.

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Ian Scheffler is an author and a Rubik’s speedcuber.

Photo courtesy of Ian Scheffler

Ian Scheffler is an author and a Rubik's speedcuber.

"We were coming back — every question we tried, we had gotten right. Then came the very last question. We got it right and still had a bonus question to answer." A bonus question is worth 10 points; Santa Monica was down by fewer than 10 so the correct answer would give them the round and seats on the championship stage.

Per the NSB rules, only the team who correctly answered the preceding toss-up question gets to answer the bonus question. The members have 20 seconds (30 for a visual) to discuss and choose their reply; only the team captain can give the team's answer to the moderator.

The question was a visual bonus; Santa Monica had to correctly identify the image.

Scheffler was so stoked from coming back from the deficit, "I was yelling to the team captain, "It's the deltoid!

"It was an image from an anatomy textbook. It was very simple."

And it was the correct answer, securing 10 points and the match for Santa Monica.

"That was our hardest match," remembers Scheffler, "the closest we came to losing," which explains the chair, the kick, and the howl.

"Science Bowl has all the thrill of any team endeavor," says Scheffler. "It can exploit weaknesses, stage comebacks, just like a sports moment."

After the excitement of the National Science Bowl® win and high school graduation, he enrolled in Columbia University. He had known for some time that he wanted to write professionally. He co-edited the Columbia Review and earned his B.A. in English literature. He has written for The New Yorker, the Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

His book, "Cracking the Cube: Going Slow to Go Fast and Other Unexpected Turns in the World of Competitive Rubik's Cube Solving" tells the history of the cube, instructions on methods for solving, and Scheffler's immersion in the world of speedsolving, as he learned to consistently solve the puzzle in under 20 seconds, becoming a sub-20 cuber.

A sub-20 cuber develops a focus that creates a mental state known as "flow" or being "in the zone." "The faster you go, the slower it feels," explains Scheffler. "I got fast enough to experience that; I did 11 seconds, but it felt like 30 seconds. It was fun learning about the math of the cube, the science of the cube, and the history of the cube." He describes speedcubers as "extremely competitive" and attributes the cube's longevity to its combination of entertainment and accessibility.

His advice for today's students coming to the NSB events: "Be a friend to your teammates; make friends at the competitions. And be competitive," counsels Scheffler.

"When I look back on Science Bowl and say, 'Wow, if I can be on a team that did that, what can't I do?' — tough college tests or job interviews, any pressure cooker experience.

"It is really something you can hang your hat on. I absolutely recommend it."


Profiles of Past Competitors: please go to 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

Sandra Allen McLean is a Communications Specialist in the Office of Science,