Champs: The Samohi team is a dynasty in the competition. Courtesy image

Five talented Samohi science experts are basking in the glow of victory this week after earning top marks at last weekend’s regional Ocean Sciences Bowl tournament — called the Los Angeles Surf Bowl — hosted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at CalTech.

The winners of the Feb. 5 Surf Bowl will now go on to compete with students from around the country at the national championship in May. Both the Surf Bowl and the national tournament are being held remotely this year due to the pandemic.

The students, representing the sophomore, junior and senior classes at Samohi, beat out teams from seven other schools from Los Angeles and Orange counties to take first place in the annual competition, but they are far from the first Vikings to earn the honor. In fact, the 2022 win marks the seventh consecutive year Santa Monica students have taken the top spot.

The team is coached by science teacher Ingo Gaida, who has shepherded a total of 14 first-prize winning teams since he began moderating the club 21 years ago.

“I think it’s an outlet for the real sharp kids,” Gaida said. He added that his students were motivated and “willing to put in the work” to win.

Gaida said the students practice after school as well as in his a.m. academic competition class, which meets early in the morning every day. In the lead up to the competition, students from the 27-member class play games and compete among each other to earn a position on the competition team. Gaida said each team has students that specialize in one particular area, such as ocean biology, geology or physics.

According to Gaida, over the years about half of the Samohi students who compete in the Ocean Sciences Bowl have gone on to pursue careers in science after graduation. Recently, a former team captain earned a PhD from UCLA in biology. Another student has been conducting ocean research in Antarctica.

Last year’s captain is now studying at UC San Diego and recently earned an internship at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Gaida said.

“A lot of them have actually gone on to do some really cool stuff,” Gaida said. “I’d say about half of them go into something science-related.

“The other half, completely not,” Gaida laughed. “Ethan, for instance, got into Duke. He’s going to major in business.”

This year’s team consisted of Captain Sara Akiba, a senior; junior Halie Matsui; senior Ethan Vazquez Foley; and sophomores Isaac Feinberg and Jesse Howard.

Matsui said she was planning to attend college, but hadn’t yet decided whether or not she would be pursuing science. Right now, her favorite classes are math (she’s taking calculus BC) and AP biology.

Matsui, who was also on last year’s winning team, said students felt the weight of prior victories on their shoulders going into Saturday’s competition.

“I think beforehand, there definitely were expectations to win this time, especially because two of the people on the team were on last year’s team, so we just really wanted to win again,” Matsui said. “I’m glad that we were able to win and honor everyone.”

For Matsui, it’s more than just the competitive nature of the game that keeps her hooked.

“It is a big time commitment, but I think what helps is that Mr. Gaida is a really great teacher and he makes the games in the morning really fun. The community is really nice — I’m able to find friends with similar interests as me,” Matsui said. But, she added, it’s “ultimately just the competition and being able to have that satisfaction of winning the buzzer race or going to nationals — I think that’s probably why I do it.”

In the competition, students are given five seconds to answer multiple-choice questions worth four points each; if the team gets the answer right, they’re given a shot at a bonus question worth six points and can deliberate for up to 20 seconds on its answer. Questions come from a range of ocean-related topics, which can also include “social” categories such as the history of ocean exploration.

JPL supplied two sample multiple-choice questions from last Saturday’s competition: “How can you quickly determine the sex of most species of crabs?” and “Lead-210 with a half-life of 22 years cannot be used to determine the sedimentation of deep-ocean sediments because of which of the following?”

Akiba told JPL’s media relations specialist that the team practices all sorts of questions in class, after school and in their downtime.

“That doesn’t even account for the individual studying and the flash cards we make,” she noted, according to information shared by JPL. Akiba called the team’s winning streak “overwhelming,” adding, “It’s a lot to live up to.”

But this year’s win proves Samohi science students are still elite competitors.

So how come lead-210 with a half-life of 22 years cannot be used to determine the sedimentation of deep-ocean sediments?

As the Samohi Surf Bowl competitors would tell you: Its half-life is too short.

And how do you quickly determine the sex of the average crab? By the shape of its abdominal plate.

These two questions, and dozens more like them, will soon be entering the study materials for future science bowl competitors at Samohi. Gaida said he collects practice questions every year, building up the team’s impressive repertoire.