Beautiful mind conquers depression, wins Brain Bee
Quinn McGennisken … ‘I just felt so helpless and hopeless’ (ABBC: Charles Sevigny, file photo)
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Located in the shadow of a power station two hours east of Melbourne, Traralgon is predominantly a working-class town. But it’s also home to Australia’s school neuroscience champion.
Last July, Quinn McGennisken from Lavalla Catholic College beat 750 year 10 and 11 students from around Australia and New Zealand to take the national Brain Bee title.
In the final, the then 16-year-old with a preference for humanity subjects beat a field of boys with a maths/science bent.
“There were a few misconceptions about me,” Quinn said.
“I have blonde hair and I’m a girl, so they used to put me down. So I thought, I’m going to do it just to prove them wrong.”
Quinn’s Mum runs a local takeaway store and her Dad operates mobile food vans. But her competitors came from more academic families.
“We understand that many of them were actually sons of doctors and they’d actually had special training at their local universities to assist them in this competition, whereas Quinn and I had just looked at diagrams in the textbook,” teacher Mara Bormanis said.
The Brain Bee required weeks of extracurricular study to progress through each of the three rounds which were run over several months.
“This competition is extremely tough. The subject matter is equivalent to second year medical student anatomy studies,” Ms Bormanis said.
But at the same time Ms McGennisken was displaying her intellectual brilliance, she was privately grappling with the mental torment of anorexia and depression.
“It’s like I’ve got two brains in my head, fighting against one another,” she said.
“So one’s sort of saying, ‘Don’t eat’ and the other is saying, ‘No, you do’ and ‘Be reasonable. This is normal’.”
Her illness began about four years ago after teasing at school. At her lowest point, Quinn ate only an apple a day, became physically ill and missed two to three days of school a week for a year.
“She just would go into her room and just curl up into a ball, and wouldn’t come out and talk,” mother Bronwyn McGennisken said.
Quinn says at times she didn’t want to live.
“I just felt so helpless and hopeless a lot of the time,” she said.
“It’s terrifying because you think you’re watching them die,” Mrs McGennisken said.
It was particularly painful for Quinn’s grandmother, who lives with the family. Throughout her 82 years, Joan Kerr has suffered several bouts of depression which also afflicted her three siblings.
“It was very hard seeing Quinn like that. Just blaming myself I think – ‘Perhaps it’s my fault she’s like it’. It’s very hard,” she said.
Mrs Kerr says she tried to help, but didn’t think she made much of a difference.
But Quinn disagrees.
“I was helped by the fact that I’d seen her overcome bouts of depression,” she said.
With counselling and medication, Quinn began to recover and her experience triggered a passionate desire to learn about the brain.
“When you know there are actual chemical imbalances involved and the biological aspects of some of these illnesses and just those things that go on at the more nitty gritty level, you do understand your illness better,” she said.
Mrs McGennisken says she thinks it has given Quinn an objective and a purpose that’s not focused on her body self-image.
Quinn is now planning a career in the mental health field, and in preparation for the international Brain Bee, she won the rare opportunity of working experience at the Howard Florey Brain Research Institute in Melbourne.
Institute director Fred Mendelsohn says Quinn’s achievements are exceptional even for someone doing it under the very best conditions.
“To do it with those difficulties really compounds your admiration for what she’s achieved,” he said.
This weekend in Montreal, she’s aiming for the world title.
Win or lose, her family is just relieved she’s healthy and happy enough to attempt it.
“I’m just proud of her because whether she achieves or doesn’t achieve, it doesn’t matter. She’s a good person,” Mrs McGennisken said.
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