This neurology resident knows how to spell success.
Dys•di•ad•o•cho•ki•ne•sia. A term used to describe a person’s inability to complete rapid movements, it’s a word you would expect only a seasoned neurologist to know, or perhaps a heady medical student. But at age 14, the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion Nupur Lala RES’22, MD, could spell it without missing a beat.
For Lala, now a second-year resident in neurology at Rhode Island Hospital, spelling complex words was just part of her daily eighth-grade routine. But prior to middle school, in Tampa, FL, she had no exposure to spelling competitions at all. She first competed in a spelling bee only because the teacher was holding it in her seventh-grade English class. “I wanted some extra credit,” Lala says. “I didn’t think it would lead anywhere.”
But after she won the classroom competition, then the school-wide one, and then the regionals, she was off to Washington, DC, to compete in the 1998 Scripps National Spelling Bee, which a year before she had never even heard of.
While she only made it to the third round that year, Lala was energized and eager to go back. Her mother helped her train, quizzing her for three to four hours a day on lists she scrounged up from past competitions and words from the dictionary.
At the 1999 competition, Lala spelled her way into the championship round, achieving the goal she set out for herself. But when there were two spellers left, she realized winning the entire spelling bee “could actually happen.” The famed word she won with was logorrhea—excessive and often incoherent talkativeness.
As champion, Lala was ineligible to participate in the spelling bee again, so she focused on other interests—including medicine. Reading about conditions like autism sparked an interest that she later followed at the University of Michigan, where she studied brain, behavior, and cognitive science. After a master’s in cancer biology at MD Anderson, followed by medical school at the University of Arkansas, she has become interested in brain cancer and hopes to study it as a resident at Brown.
While she stopped spelling competitively after her win, it has still been part of her life. “When I won the spelling bee, I didn’t believe it at the time, but I was told that this is something that will follow you for the rest of your life,” she says—from a colleague commenting on her ability to spell seemingly impossible words to phrases she learned in eighth grade popping up in her medical textbooks.
But what has been the “most humbling” part of her success, Lala says, has been the kids she inspired. Partially because she was the star of the beloved movie Spellbound, a documentary about the 1999 bee, many children have told her how much she inspired them to compete in spelling competitions. When she attended the national championship in 2014, “several kids came running and tried to take pictures of me and held their cell phones up like people do when they’re trying to photograph an actual celebrity. I never thought that anyone would be interested that many years later,” she says.
“My time in spelling bees gave me a lot of confidence and helped me learn to work hard toward something. I think I got what I needed to from that experience,” Lala adds. “With that said, it easily remains one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”