Meet your 2015 Flame Challenge Finalists!

Thank you for voting on the finalists’ entries for the 2015 Flame Challenge. Here are the six scientists who submitted their entries that best answer the question, “What is sleep?” Winners will be announced at the World Science Festival on Sunday, May 31.

The entries below are in no particular order.


Here are the finalists for the written entries:

Brandon Aldinger – Renfrew, PA

Brandon Aldinger decided to study chemistry after he realized that it linked his two favorite hobbies, astronomy and rock collecting. In the Nittany Chemical Society at Penn State University, he enjoyed preparing demonstrations for the annual Halloween Magic Show — the most memorable moment being when a pumpkin exploded a mite more forcefully than intended.

Brandon went on to earn his PhD at Cornell University, where he won an award for his teaching assistantship in an analytical chemistry course while performing research on the surface chemistry of silicon etching. Partnering with the Cornell Center for Materials Research Educational Office, he also led outreach events on fluorescent minerals and chemical demonstrations for inner-city students. Brandon currently works as the materials scientist at Ibis Tek, a veteran-owned small business, where he designs transparent armor, the multi-layered glass composites that protect soldiers in their vehicles.

Brandon Aldinger’s entry: 

Danger! If you don’t sleep, you’ll die! Like us, almost all animals need to sleep—everything from fish, to horses, to birds. Even butterflies and worms sleep!

Although there’s still some mystery as to exactly why we sleep, we know that our body takes care of two big things while we’re sleeping. First, our brain organizes what it learned while we were awake. Your brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. These neurons are connected in a huge network. While we sleep, our brain strengthens and rearranges these connections to help us remember things more quickly and easily when we are awake. So, the next time your mom or dad yells, “Wake up! It’s time to go to school!” you can explain to them that you were actually still studying from yesterday!

The second thing that happens during sleep is our body heals itself. Sleep is a little bit like a superpower. If you want to get over a cold quickly, make sure you sleep a lot. You might also have noticed that adults in your home don’t sleep as much as you do. That’s because your body needs more sleep to manage the stuff that happens while your body and brain are still growing.

So those are two reasons why we sleep, but what about dreams? Well, as your brain is calming down from being awake, parts of it shoot out random signals, like a TV station with too much static. Another part of your brain does its best to make sense of these signals, but the story it puts together can be pretty weird! Does anyone else dream about fighting a gang of mutant ninjas, or is it just me?


Pranathi Kondapaneni – Arlington, VA

Pranathi Kondapaneni received her medical degree and masters in public health from George Washington University. After graduate training, Pranathi specialized in neurology.  Pranathi has always placed a strong emphasis on communication in her clinical practice. After all, a patient who understands his/her medical condition is not only more empowered, but more likely to follow through on treatment.

In July 2014, Pranathi’s high school friend Karen (pictured on the right) was extremely frustrated by a doctor who didn’t explain things properly. In the back seat of the car, Karen’s 9-year-old son Alexander noted that the fact that doctors don’t explain stuff was “crap!” Karen’s frustrations sparked an interest. Pranathi started to study methods to improve communication in the exam room. For example, in the fall of 2014, Pranathi took acting classes, which taught her about reading body language. Entering the Flame Challenge was another exercise to improve her communication skills. It made perfect sense to her that kids would be the perfect judges. Because kids are curious, honest and let you know if something is “crap!”

Pranathi Kondapaneni’s entry:

Did you know a bottle-nose dolphin’s brain can be asleep and awake at the same time?  While one half of the brain sleeps, the other half stays awake! When humans go to sleep at night, our whole brain and body goes to sleep all at once.

Whether you are a dolphin or a human, we both need sleep to survive. Sleep is your daily, rest mini-vacation for both the brain and the body. Sleep gives you a break so that you can get ready for the next day.

When you are asleep, you go back and forth between REM and Non-REM sleep every 90 minutes. That is about 4 to 5 times a night.

REM stands for rapid eye movement. During REM sleep, even though your eyes move back and forth rapidly under your eyelids, the rest of body’s muscles are completely relaxed. Your heart beats faster and your breathing is not as regular. This is also the part of sleep during which you remember your dreams. During REM sleep, your brain’s energy is restored. Good REM sleep helps you get good grades.

During Non-REM sleep, breathing slows down and blood supply increases to the muscles.  During Non-REM sleep, hormones such as Growth hormone are released. These hormones are essential for growth and repair of muscle tissue. During Non-REM sleep, you body’s muscle energy is restored. Good Non-REM sleep helps you run really fast.

But, sleep is not just important for grades and running. When you don’t sleep well, you get sick, feel cranky and fall asleep during your favorite movie!

How much sleep do you need? Dolphins sleep about 8 hours a day. Most, ten to twelve year olds need nine to eleven hours a day. So, make sure you get more sleep than a dolphin!


Preeti Zanwar – Houston, TX

Preeti Zanwar is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Science and Computer Engineering at the University of Houston Clear Lake where she teaches scientific writing to graduate students. This year, by participating in the 2015 Flame Challenge, all of her students learned how difficult of a process it is to communicate a complex science topic in simple, jargon-free language.

For Preeti, science has been an inseparable part of her life since birth. Her love for science was influenced by her genes and her environment. In her family, she was surrounded by science and computer enthusiasts. She received her Master of Science in biological sciences from the University of Houston Clear Lake. She pursued basic science research at Baylor College of Medicine for nearly 10 years. As a researcher at the department of molecular and cellular biology, she created bacterial clones for propagation studies in transgenic mice to differentiate developmental and phenotypic eye mutations. At the department of molecular virology and microbiology in Dr. Janet S. Butel’s laboratory, she helped develop and optimize a sensitive and accurate analysis to detect the presence of viral markers by the use of real-time polymerase chain reaction. She later utilized the methodology to study polyomaviral infections in human cancers and in solid-organ transplant recipients.

A deep realization that diseases and health outcomes are a function of our genes and our globe, led her to pursue a Masters and a PhD in public health from the University of Texas School of Public Health, and a certificate in health outcomes from the Harvard School of Public Health. She is the recipient of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Service Research Award/post-doctoral traineeship and of the 2014 RAND summer institute scholarship in aging. She is passionate about research and science writing and maintains an active ResearchGate profile where she communicates her work to the scientific community.

Preeti Zanwar’s entry:

All creatures, humans, mammals, birds, fishes, and flies, need a break to rest or to sleep. While humans sleep with both eyes closed, birds sleep with one eye open, to watch out for their predators. “Nocturnal” bats, unlike humans, sleep during the day. Babies and children need more sleep than older people because their brains and bodies are still growing. Short sleeps during the day are “siestas” or power naps.

All activities, such as showering, eating, playing, learning, use energy. When we are short on energy we feel tired. Sleeping “stocks up” or banks our energy and allows us to keep moving every day, and day after day. Sleep gives our brain and body the needed break from activity, to relax, to heal, to repair, and to recharge our batteries. A good night’s sleep helps us focus in class and to remember things. Sleep improves our general health and gives our bodies the power to guard off bad germs that can make us sick. If humans stay awake for too many hours, they get sleepy, irritated, or cranky. If rats don’t sleep, they die. If computers are kept running continuously, they crash.

Our sleep is divided into five cycles or periods. Dreams happen when we are in sleep cycle five or in “REM” (rapid eye movement) cycle. Dreams project our thoughts, experiences, and desires. Dogs dream too! Nightmares are just bad dreams of visual imaginations of our fears, which often, wake us up. Gaming and watching TV at night can keep us from getting enough sleep. Kiddo, don’t be a night owl, turn off your lights, roll into your pajamas, and get to bed early every night, so that you can get a good night’s sleep! When you do this every day, nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams!


Here are the finalists for the video entries:

Eric C. Galicia – Des Plaines, Il

Eric C. Galicia is a candidate in the Master of Health Physics program at Illinois Institute of Technology. This program provides in-depth knowledge of quantum physics, radiation physics and biology, while emphasizing strong analytical and communication skills.

Galicia’s passion for science and film-making began in grade school when he fell in love with science fiction films and books. He has a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He spends his free time studying for his master’s degree, running a Wing Tsun martial arts school, and continuing to pursue his film-making passions. And yes, it was real soap.


Matteo Farinella – London, UK

Matteo Farinella received a PhD in neuroscience from University College London in 2013. Since then, he has been working in the field of science communication, combining his scientific expertise with a life-long passion for drawing. He draws educational comics and illustrations. For the 2015 Flame Challenge, he teamed up with designer Pamela Parker and sound artist Andrew Jones to produce his first animation.


Rohan Kapitany  Queensland, Australia

Rohan Kapitany is an Australian PhD candidate studying experimental psychology. His job is to understand how ideas work, what makes them move between heads and why humans have culture. Rohan primarily works with young children and adults both in the U.S. and overseas. He is looking to understand what elements of ideas influence behavior and cognition. He also has an interest in supernatural agents (like Santa) and more generally, religion, and has dabbled in understanding love as a research question.

Rohan has spent several years involved in science communication, including producing a successful psychology themed podcast, an art-science collaboration in the medium of dance and has lobbied the Australian ABC (the government owned national broadcaster) to include more science in their news. You can read more about Rohan at his website - www.rohankapitany.com - or follow him on Twitter – @psycasm.


About the Flame Challenge:

We all do it, and most of us have done it every single day for our entire lives. Babies do it, and so do the oldest people on earth. Puppies do it. Kittens do it. Even computers have a “sleep” mode.

What is sleep? That’s the question we asked in the 2015 Flame Challenge. Alan Alda and the Alda Center for Communicating Science challenged scientists to explain sleep in a way that will enlighten 11-year-olds and awaken their interest in learning more about sleep.

Rules and Prizes:

This year, we’re adding a $1,000 cash prize for the two winning entries — one written entry of less than 300 words and one video of less than 5 minutes or a graphic, in English. The entries are screened for accuracy and sent out to registered classes for judging.

In addition, the winners will get a trip to New York City, where they will meet Alan Alda and be honored at a special event at the World Science Festival on May 31, 2015.

Contest Background:

The 2015 question, “What is sleep?” was submitted by Ms. Wohlberg’s sixth grade class at Garden City Middle School in New York. Several other students from around the country asked related questions, such as “What are dreams?” Flame Challenge student judge No wonder kids wonder about sleep.

Sleep is something we all experience, but what is it really? Why do we need to do it, even when we don’t want to? What are dreams, and nightmares? Could we ever evolve — or take a pill — so we didn’t have to sleep? How does sleep affect how we learn or feel or remember? Does sleep change as you grow up? Is sleep the same for other living creatures as it is for people? What happens in your brain when you sleep?

The Flame Challenge began in 2012, based on actor and science advocate Alan Alda’s childhood question: “What is a flame?” The contest is generously sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science).

“I came up with this contest as a fun challenge for scientists to explain a complex thing like a flame in a way that would make it clear to an 11 year old,” Alan Alda said. “The idea was to urge scientists to communicate more clearly. I didn’t realize what an extraordinary learning experience it was going to be for the 11-year-olds. By now, tens of thousands of kids from all over the world have excitedly delved into the mysteries of nature as they’ve judged the scientists’ entries. This year’s question — “What is sleep?” — should wake them up to a whole new understanding of that third of our lives we know so little about.”

The winners of the 2015 Flame Challenge will be revealed at a special event at the World Science Festival on May 31, 2015. 


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