Thanh-Liem Huynh-Tran and mentor Dave Mochel

Courtesy Cate School

Thanh-Liem Huynh-Tran and mentor Dave Mochel

Brain Boy

Santa Barbara Neuroscience Prodigy Wins National Competition and is Going International

Evaluated on information normally studied by second-year medical school students, Santa Barbara local and Cate School junior Thanh-Liem Huynh-Tran emerged victorious in the national Brain Bee competition in Baltimore. This summer will find him in Florence, Italy competing in the international competition, according to Don Orth, communications director for Cate School.

Slightly nervous about representing America in the international competition, Huynh-Tran said, “There’s some pressure. America had a winning streak for a while, and total I think we’ve won almost 10.” But regardless of the outcome this summer brings, his triumph in the national competition is not lacking prestige and benefits.

One such perk is an eight-week internship with a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Health also slated to occur this summer. “That’s the main reason I wanted to enter the competition,” Huynh-Tran confessed. Internship obtained, he already has that victory. Winning another title in Florence would be a fringe benefit.

Securing the internship (along with a scholarship and a quite sizeable trophy) took immense preparation and effort on the part of Huynh-Tran, who capitalized on the independent study option at Cate School to create his own curriculum and bounce ideas off of a neuroscience faculty mentor provided by the school.

Opposed to taking credit for his mentee’s success, mentor Dave Mochel complimented Huynh-Tran. “I’ll take the title of mentor but, quite frankly, he designed his curriculum of study and sent me his resources. He works through a body of material, comes with a whole list of questions, and we sit down and I answer his questions. He found the competition and is really self-motivated.”

Mochel sees something in Huynh-Tran that is an underappreciated virtue: “I wish persistence was valued more in education. We emphasize the importance of creativity and spontaneity. Those are important, but so is persistence, and humility.”

Huynh-Tran’s humility was instantly showcased when he arrived for his interview brandishing a typed, categorized list of all the people he credits for his success. This list (which appears below), sports names of people such as last year’s LA Brain Bee champion, who has mentored Huynh-Tran, Christopher Hrvoj, and even a nameless giver of an encouraging hug.

But Mochel defers much of the credit to Huynh-Tran himself. “He is disciplined, persistent, gritty—he’s just willing.” He continued, “If you saw the list of topics and the level of depth with which he needs to be familiar you’d be awestruck. There’s nothing glamorous about the way he spends most of his time; he loves the material but he has to spend hours and hours with it.”

Despite his success, competitions are not Huynh-Tran’s passion—“He thinks they’re too cut throat,” said Mochel. The social nature of the national competition fit his friendly personality better. “Usually the extent of interaction between competitors is glaring at each other, but everyone was friendly and open and we’d talk during free time instead of studying more,” said Huynh-Tran. “I still keep in contact with many of them.”

The level of difficulty in subject matter would have made free time spent studying quite understandable, however. Students involved in the competition had to diagnose patient actors with a variety of mysterious symptoms, take a microscope test on neurohistological tissues, do a neuroanatomy laboratory practical with human brains, interpret MRI images of the brain, take a written test, and participate in an oral question-and-answer segment, according to Orth.

“My favorite part was the patient diagnostics, it confirmed my desire to be a doctor,” said Huynh-Tran, whose affection for this realm may end up shaping his career choice. “I’m leaning toward being a neurologist because I like the problem-solving part.”

The international competition is formatted much the same as its national counterpart, but the difficulty is turned up a notch—especially in Huynh-Tran’s favored area of patient diagnostics. “I’ve been in contact with some of the previous winners and they say it’s a lot harder. Especially the patient diagnostic part; there are a lot more subtle symptoms,” said Huynh-Tran.

But Huynh-Tran and his mentor (with some inspiration from television character Dr. House and his compelling, complex cases) have a plan: “He is going to come up with very House-like cases and see if I can figure them out,” Huynh-Tran disclosed.

Huynh-Tran’s knack for neuroscience began with a love of science in general; a love largely cultivated by his fifth-grade science teacher, Ms. Beamer. “She was like a real life Ms. Frizzle, she made science so fun and ‘out there,’ and it really sparked my interest,” said Huynh-Tran.

As he prepares for a new country with a new competition, Huynh-Tran is grateful for his school’s support system, “I love Cate School. Everyone is really supportive. It’s nice to know while I’m dissecting a brain that I’ve got people rooting for me back home.”

Huynh-Tran’s thanks are the following:

From Crane, his K-8 school: Ms. Carol Beamer (science teacher K-5); Mr. Pat Bixler and Mr. Phil von Phul (middle school science teachers).

Cate, his high school: Mr. Dave Mochel (neuroscience mentor); Mrs. Powers (biology teacher).

From the Los Angeles Brain Bee: Professor Amy Sweetman of L.A. City College (organizer); Dr. Christopher Evans and Dr. Joseph Watson from the UCLA Brain Research Institute (judges); Christopher Hrvoj, 2010 L.A. Brain Bee champion (judge and coach for the National Brain Bee); neuroscience students and teachers from UCLA and USC (L.A. Brain Bee volunteers and supporters).

From the National Brain Bee: Dr. Myron Myslinski (mastermind behind the Bee); more volunteers, like organizers, judges, lecturers, and patient actors.

Finally, Huynh-Tran thanks the good luck hug he got from one of his AP Bio classmates.

To submit a comment on this article, email or visit our Facebook page. To submit information to a reporter, email

event calendar sponsored by:

Pair of F-22s Buzz Santa Barbara City College

Turbulence rattles windows and nerves on Monday morning.

Mandatory Evacuation Called for Fire Zones in Santa Barbara County

Heavy rains expected Tuesday-Thursday; debris flows feared.

Cannabis Farmer Gets Over $1 Million Insurance Payout

Thomas Fire ash destroys crop; analysis finds asbestos, lead, arsenic, and magnesium.

Next Debris Flow Could Take Different, Unknown Path

"I've never seen this degree of hazard," says Cal Fire scientist.

Biggest Storm Since 1/9 Approaching Santa Barbara

The storm system brings increased threat of flash floods and debris flows.