Using your brain is one thing. Studying the brain is quite another. In Sunnyvale, Stratford Raynor Middle School 8th grader Diya Pendyala successfully does both.
“You can think of an idea as fast as the eye can blink,” said Pendyala, justifying her enthusiasm and wonder about the brain. “The brain is complicated, intricate.”
Pendyala placed 8th in the North South Foundation 2019 National Brain Bee for middle school students, held in Boston at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last August.
The only child of Sunnyvale residents Sailaja and Veeranjaneyelu Pendyala, both Indian-born software engineers, she was one of about 4,500 intermediate and senior high national finalists, narrowed from a pool of about 15,000 regional competitors.
Pendyala was first inspired to learn about the brain when she studied body systems in the third grade.
“All the systems work together. Knowing that the brain controls them all, that was really interesting for me,” said Pendyala. “It compelled me to learn more.”
So she watched YouTube brain videos and drove her friends crazy with brain facts. She studied three to four hours daily last summer for the national Brain Bee.
Contestants had to respond in writing to questions such as “What type of memory is associated with remembering words and phrases?”
Other questions required diagnostic skills: A girl who is into extreme sports goes to the doctor because of head pain. She can’t touch her finger to her nose. What’s wrong with her?
“I was like so happy to place 8th,” she said. “It was a really big achievement. It was stressful but fun.”
“We’re proud of Diya,” said Stratford Raynor Vice-Principal Efren Caliva. “We’re proud of knowing that we were able to support and nurture her curiosity in fulfilling her unique path in life.”
When she’s not focused on the brain, Pendyala enjoys singing in the school show choir, dancing and swimming. She hopes to attend MIT and become a radiologist.
“My mom was diagnosed with chronic pain,” Pendyala said. “Watching that and not being able to do anything for her made me want to be able to help people with these issues.
“I want to be a researcher and come up with ways to prevent cognitive diseases from occurring and lower the effects of these diseases on patients,” she continued.
Pendyala wants people to be aware of the consequences of drugs on the brain.
“The brain can easily be fooled and in turn damaged. Smoking and drugs can fool the brain by shutting down some parts used to send messages to the body,” said Pendyala. “Normal cognitive skills — thinking, learning and memory skills — can be affected.
“Younger brains are more susceptible to these problems, and it can affect us more in the long term,” she said.
The nonprofit North South Foundation, founded in 1989 in Illinois, funds college scholarships for needy children in India and promotes excellence in human endeavor by organizing educational contests — like the Brain Bee — for kids in the U.S and, since 2010, in India.
“Learning what’s inside you as well as outside, is a beautiful process,” said Pendyala, who plans to compete in the 2020 Brain Bee.