Sophomore Wins Second Place in International Science Essay Competition

By Staff Writer Jonathan Ko

The Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science awarded Sophomore Anthony Zhou second place in the 2016 International Science Essay Competition and will publish his essay in the March 2017 issue of the Journal. His submission, titled “Avian Navigation: A Marriage of Quantum Mechanics and Biology,” was chosen above more than 230 other submissions.

The International Science Essay Competition, established by the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science in 2012, is an annual contest that asks high school students to write a scientific essay in response to a prompt. The 2016 prompt focused on explaining how different fields of science come together to offer a comprehensive explanation for a scientific phenomenon.

Zhou first discovered the competition through a mass email sent out by Class of 2015 Alumna Brenda Miao. Immediately interested, he set out to begin his paper. After reading many different scientific papers, he finally decided on the right topic. Zhou said, “I became interested in how quirky everything is in quantum mechanics. Then I found out how it was being applied in biology, and I found that really interesting.”

The process of planning and eventually writing the essay took place over four months between July and October 2016. Because of the inherent complexity of Zhou’s chosen topic, even understanding the background literature was a challenge to him. Zhou said, “I had to read papers over and over again in order to actually understand what was going on. The first time I read them, I was completely confused.” Eventually, however, he put together a submission that placed second out of more than 230 other essays.

Zhou’s essay on quantum mechanics and biology relating to how birds navigate focused on a set of magnetically sensitive chemical reactions that take place in birds’ retinas. These reactions are caused by unstable chemical molecules, which combine with enzymes to form bonds between tryptophan, molecules, and enzymes. Within these bonds, quantum phenomena act on paired electrons because of the magnetic fields generated by electrons’ spins. Earth’s magnetic field affects the electrons’ magnetic fields, effectively aligning birds with Earth’s magnetic field.

Through the competition, Zhou learned the many skills needed to write a publishable scientific essay. However, he said that the most important part of the competition was the experience of learning an entirely new concept from background papers. Zhou said, “It look a long,  long time for me to understand how the mechanisms worked behind the topic … [I learned] how to perform research [and] how to understand where results come from.”

Thinking back on his experience with the 2016 International Science Essay Competition, Zhou said, “I would definitely recommend it to other people. Writing a scientific essay is different from anything you’ve experienced. People at Mission, we don’t really write a lot of scientific essays. It’s a great experience.”

Photo by Staff Writer Jonathan Ko

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