Spellbound: 'Nerdy' Spelling Bee champ now cancer researcher in Houston

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News & Associated Press

khou.com

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 6:25 PM

Updated Friday, May 31 at 12:00 PM

HOUSTON -- Today the young doctoral student wears a white coat and blue surgical gloves as she does laboratory research work on bone cancer. 

Nobody recognizes her on the street anymore, certainly not as she drives to work at the University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences just a short distance from the Astrodome. Then again, no longer is Nupur Lala the nerdy 14-year-old girl who leapt for joy before a national television audience as she won the 1999 National Spelling Bee.

"You go from being an anonymous middle schooler, basically, to having everybody know who you are for about two weeks," she said, recalling the dizzying round of network television appearances that followed her victory.

As luck would have it, she won her championship the same year documentary filmmakers chose to produce "Spellbound," an acclaimed Oscar-nominated movie focusing on the nation’s pre-eminent spelling competition. Anyone who didn’t see her during the live television broadcast could see her in the documentary, which profiled her and featured interviews with her parents and one of her teachers.

The film climaxed with the moment Lala jumped into the air and raised her fists in celebration. The exceptionally smart little girl sporting big glasses and straight shoulder-length hair became something of a role model for a generation of brainy kids.

"Being nerdy is a lot more socially acceptable, and I kind of like that," she said. "And if I had any part of that, then I’m thrilled." 

Now she’s a 28 year-old doctoral student living in Houston who hopes to become a physician scientist. Her co-workers tease her about her spelling championship and tease her when she misspells words in emails, but she still watches every year when the spelling bee finals hit the airwaves. And just like everybody else, she cringes for the children who stumble over tough words.

"People always assume when they see the kids on TV that they must be complete wrecks, but especially when it’s the last few spellers, you’re just so focused on each round and getting through each word that you’re not really thinking about anything else," she said.

Lala is the first to say that winning the national bee has been an overwhelming positive in her life, even if does get tiresome to have people repeatedly asking her to spell her winning word - "logorrhea" - or to realize that her reputation can unfairly put her on a pedestal in an academic setting.

"I’ve had people say ‘I expect more of you because I’ve seen what you are capable of,’" Lala said. "And that’s a huge honor - and also very daunting."

Then there’s another set of emotions she feels every year when her name is mentioned by the Indian-Americans youngsters who now dominate the national bee. All of the recent winners, to some degree, have cited Lala as an inspiration.

"It’s absolutely overwhelming," she said. "And I think especially as I’ve grown older and seeing how much I’ve wanted to emulate people in my life. Yeah, it’s very humbling every time I hear that. It feels like a lot of responsibility, to be perfectly honest. You become very conscious of that."

There have also been a disproportionate number of recent winners interested in the brain and medicine, including several who said they wanted to grow up to be neurosurgeons. Lala pursued an undergraduate degree in brain, behavior and cognitive sciences at the University of Michigan, in part because of her experiences from the bee.

"Why do I remember certain words and not others? Why isn’t my memory so good for everything else?" she said. "That question sort of drew me into research."

At least much of the terminology was familiar. After studying all those big words for the bee, a standard vocabulary test is a breeze.

"I remember taking the GRE years ago," she said, "and how I had such an edge over other competitors because I basically studied the vocabulary component for the Spelling Bee."

National Spelling Bee champions are a small and tight-knit group - Lala keeps tabs with many of her fellow winners - and she marvels that she had the nerve to pull off her win all those years ago. She turned down a chance to be featured on an MTV reality show that wanted to follow her through college; she wasn’t comfortable with the idea and didn’t feel she was crazy enough to be interesting.

Besides, there is life beyond the bee - and the public perception of what a bee winner should be - and that’s where Lala prefers to keep her focus, at least during the 51 weeks a year when she’s not glued to the television to see another successor crowned. Like Lala, this week’s champion will have a winning moment etched in America’s collective conscious and immortalized on the Internet, lasting long after he or she has grown up to pursue an impressive degree or career.

"It’s something that you fight quite a bit," Lala said. "Especially now that I feel like I’m on a career path, it’s becoming a little bit easier. ... People always thought of me as this nerdy, excitable, just-an-awkward kid. Now they can see me as somebody beyond that, I hope."

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