City of Hope researcher Joseph Lyons, Ph.D., knows diseases well, but when it comes to history, he is no expert.
Despite his scientific qualifications, he admits limited knowledge about the machinations behind the United States Civil War. Yet Lyons found himself a valued guide for students from Duarte High School’s Academic Decathlon team, who had to become authorities on the Civil War as part of their 2007-08 competition. The team recently earned a wildcard berth to compete at the state level.
“This is the first time I have been involved with mentoring an academic decathlon team, and it has been very rewarding to see them achieve so much,” said Lyons, a scientist in the Department of Infectious Diseases. When he was first approached to mentor the team, though, he was not sure how he could help.
“When I said, ‘Think of infectious diseases during the Civil War,’ he jumped right in,” said Robert Grebel, math teacher at Duarte High School and coach of the academic decathlon team. “We’re always in need of people like Joseph Lyons to help mentor the students: People with expertise to share even if they initially think they don’t.”
Lyons is no stranger to student competitions. He has mentored students in the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy at City of Hope, and he has seen two of them take their scientific investigations to the national level of the annual Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. He has met regularly with the Duarte High School team since last summer to help them hone their disease knowledge.
The Academic Decathlon has four stages of competition, culminating in a national event. Each stage consists of written tests in seven subjects, two speeches, an interview, an essay and a team “super quiz.” Students earn points for individual and team honors. Each year’s contest hinges on a central theme, such as the Civil War.
In the most recent Los Angeles County competition, Duarte placed second behind Alhambra’s Mark Keppel High School, but its cumulative score was high enough to send the team to the state contest — the highest level the school has ever achieved. Additionally, Duarte’s Hayden McFarlane, a three-year veteran of the academic decathlon team, was the second-leading individual scorer in the competition.
“I was really proud of what we’ve accomplished as a team,” said McFarlane. “I had wanted at least one individual medal when I first got into the academic decathlon, but I achieved that last year, so my sights this year were focused on getting the team to state.”
Amber Nicholson has participated in the Academic Decathlon for four years and has seen the team rise from 20th place in the county competition to second. “It is a program that completely changes who you are and lets you grow into your own skin and prepares you for the real world because of all of the situations that you’re put in,” said Nicholson.
Ultimately, that sense of empowerment is what Grebel wants most for his students. “It’s difficult to convince a kid that they play a role in their own education, that they can control their own education,” said Grebel. “Kids have to put in the effort to get the most that they can out of any experience.”
The Falcon Academic Decathlon team consists of Kevin Amador, Christopher Amurao, Lucas Bondi, Daniel Colin, Talin Darkjian, Evan Finlay, Yonathan Lie, Gayle Manahan, Hayden McFarlane, Amber Nicholson, Vanja Primorac, Mozzum Saleem, Oliver Solorzano, Samantha Thomas, Juan Urena and coach Robert Grebel.
How to help the Duarte High School team
The state Academic Decathlon runs from March 7 to 9 in Sacramento, Calif. The team is raising much-needed funds to cover travel and accommodations. Anyone interested in helping the team may send contributions (checks payable to Duarte High School) to:
Duarte High School • 1565 East Central Ave. • Duarte, CA 91010 • c/o: Rosalie Palacios
For more information, please call 626-599-5700.