Many never thought Ashley Mwikali, now 19, could pull off such a great feat.
She was an ordinary student, struggling to make an impression in her studies.
Ashley has been in secondary school for five years now. She has been to three schools since joining Form One. She decided to repeat Form Three after she performed dismally.
She started out at Wankan Girls in Ruiru before moving to Machakos Academy, then landed at Green Garden Academy in Kikuyu.
The girls felt her former schools had something to do with her poor results.
Ashley scored 241 marks in her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams. It was discouraging but she decided to soldier on.
Later on, she developed a desire to become a doctor, which has driven the Form Four candidate to study hard. Her grades have since improved tremendously.
Her teachers say she is among the top performers in the school. This saw her selected for a competition that has earned her a trip to Washington DC in August for the final after winning the local event.
On March 18 this year, Ashley was picked to join a programme by the University of Nairobi (UoN). In the competition, participants, secondary school students, are trained in various subjects in biology, human anatomy and neuroscience after which they are tested in a competition known as international brain contest.
Participants engage in extra studies, way beyond their school syllabus.
UoN works with secondary schools, which then forward their best students to be enrolled in the programme.
During the local competition, Ashley emerged tops after beating her competitors from Kianda and Lenana schools.
Ashley tied, on 86 points, with one of her competitors. This forced organisers to plan a second round where three questions were asked. Ashley answered two correctly while her competitor, from Lenana School, managed only one.
And on August 2, Ashley will join 25 other contestants from around the world for a neuroanatomy contest organised by the American Psychological Association as part of their annual convention.
She is one of two contestants from Africa. The other one is from Nigeria.
Her invitation letter shows the event will involve an examination in a laboratory involving actual human brain.
It will also involve diagnosis of patients, brain histology, as well as a written and oral exam.
Ashley’s teacher, Pascal Obuya, described her as sociable, bright and hard-working.
Mr Obuya said they selected her for the competition because of her outstanding performance.
He described her performance as above average. “She appears to have put in a lot of effort in science subjects as evidenced by her outstanding grades,” he said.
He said Ashley is likely to score an ‘A’ or at least a ‘B’ in the KCSE examinations.
He said: “I am confident she will make the school, and indeed the whole country, proud during the competition in America.”
“In school, we only learn about how the brain works. However, what we study for this competition is much deeper,” says Ashley.
Kenya had no representation in last year’s competition. Egypt and Nigeria represented Africa in event where the winner, a Romanian, earned USD3,000 (Sh300,000). A Canadian was second (USD 2,000) ahead of New Zealand (USD1,000).
And as her colleagues are studying for this year’s KCSE exams, Ashley is being coached by Koki Mutungi, a third year medicine student at UoN, ahead of the competition. Koki took part in the 2012 event in South Africa.
Ashley’s mother, Ruth Kariuki, said she is sometimes unable to understand her daughter.
“I was shocked when she insisted on repeating Form Three. She did not like her grade, not that it was poor. She said she did not want to compromise her chances of becoming a doctor,” Ms Kariuki said.
She added: “I have decided to support her. It is good for parents to support their children, even when they are not doing so well.”
Some 30,000 students from 30 countries have participated in the challenge since it started in 1999.