When they agreed to compete in the National Science Bowl, five young women from the Buffalo Prep program knew they were part of something prestigious and intense.
But Olivia Cox, Andrea Finley, Kerris Sease, Bianca Coleman and Sylvie Bizimungu didn't immediately realize they were pioneers.
By winning a regional competition in February in Rochester, they became the first all-female team to earn a spot in the national finals in the event's 17-year history. And while there have previously been all-African-American teams, the Buffalo Prep squad has the added distinction of being the first all-female, all-African-American squad.
The U.S. Department of Energy, which sponsors the competition, calls that a major breakthrough in a field long dominated by males.
"I'm thrilled that this all-girls team won its regional event," said Sue Ellen Walbridge, Science Bowl manager. "The Science Bowl's purpose is to encourage students to be excited about science and math and to pursue careers in those fields."
The Buffalo Prep squad will compete against 63 other teams April 26-30 in Washington, D.C., with all expenses paid by the Department of Energy. The teams that finish first, second and third will earn science-related summer trips to Australia, France or Newport News, Va.
The local competitors only recently learned that they are the first all-girls team to reach the final, adding extra meaning to what was already a great experience. Like the other finalists, they will attend sessions with Nobel laureates before the competition and tour the nation's capital.
"It was enough for us to go to Washington," said Andrea Finley, a Sweet Home High School sophomore. "Now, this is no joke. We're breaking down some barriers."
The success of the local team is also focusing attention on Buffalo Prep, a program that offers extensive academic enrichment and college preparation to nearly 200 minority students.
Participants go to Buffalo Prep sessions after school, on weekends and during the summer at the group's offices at the University at Buffalo's South Campus on Main Street.
A not-for-profit organization, Buffalo Prep draws students from local private and parochial schools and from high-performing public schools. It is funded by foundations, corporations and individual donors.
"Hard work, commitment and dedication pay off," said Marcia O'Neil-White, Buffalo Prep's executive director. "Being exposed to science and being committed to it makes a difference."
The five girls study together for six hours every Saturday and spend as much as four additional hours a week at home poring through practice tests for a competition that is similar in form to the television game show "Jeopardy."
"I've raised the bar, and they've reached the bar," said Monyuette Coplin, director of Buffalo Prep's graduate program. "It's exhilarating and exciting for our ladies."
But the "Preppies" aren't watching the world pass them by while their noses are glued to science books.
"Just because you like science doesn't mean you're a geek who doesn't do other things," said Kerris, a junior at Nardin Academy.
The team's all-star credentials dramatically drive home that point:
*Kerris is president of the Buffalo Youth and Young Adult Choral Society, plays flute in the school orchestra and is a youth usher at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church. She plans to be a physician, a toxicologist or a physicist.
*Olivia, a senior at City Honors School, played varsity basketball, is a Student Council member and last summer was a volunteer nursing assistant in Roswell Park Cancer Institute's intensive care unit. She will study nursing next year at the University at Buffalo.
*Sylvie, a senior at Nardin, fled war-torn Rwanda with her family when she was a child and gives credit to teachers at Nardin and Buffalo's School 45 for helping her succeed. She is a member of the track team and, as a peer counselor, helps incoming freshmen adjust to high school. Sylvie plans to be an electrical engineer.
*Andrea is a peer mediator at Sweet Home High School, sings in school musicals, plays the piano and French horn, writes poetry and musical lyrics, played varsity softball and still manages to hold down a part-time job as a cashier. She plans to be a doctor.
*Bianca, a junior at Nardin, is on the track team and is a member of the science and math clubs. She was awarded a Benjamin Banneker Award for Excellence in Math and Science and wants to be a forensic scientist.
Now the girls are coming together as a team, spending Saturdays studying astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, math, earth science and computer science, and refining game techniques such as quickly ringing a buzzer when they have an answer.
While modest about their accomplishments, the girls are enjoying the attention they receive as word of their success spreads and using it for motivation.
"It makes you want to do well," said Olivia.
And at an early age, the girls are learning about the rewards and responsibilities of taking on a challenge not only for themselves, but for their schools, the Buffalo Prep program and for their classmates.
"It makes other people feel like they can do anything they put their minds to," said Bianca.
A science sampler
If Buffalo Prep's all-girls Science Bowl team advances to the final rounds of the national competition later this month, these are the types of questions they will face:
Which of the following is MOST accurate for eukaryotic cells:
W) introns are spliced out of pre-mRNA X) introns are spliced out of pre-DNA Y) exons are spliced out of pre-mRNA Z) exons are spliced out of pre-DNA
Which of the following explains why a sailboat can sail into the wind:
W) Bernoulli's Principle X) Pascal's Law Y) Archimede's Principle Z) Reynold's Numbers
The tectorial membrane is found in which of the following anatomical structures of a human:
W) inner ear X) eye Y) testes Z) ovaries
Source: National Science Bowl