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Date a Geek: Iryna Zenyuk, U.S. Chess Champ

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We interview Iryna Zenyuk, one of the top US female chess players who is currently participating in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship.

Tell us a bit about yourself (Age, hometown, what you do for a living):

I am originally from Ukraine but consider my hometown to be New York, where I finished high school and college. I am 27 and currently living in Berkeley working in Berkeley Lab as a chemist postdoctorate fellow. My regular day revolves around solving problems on how to make fuel cell technologies more efficient. Outside of the science world I am one of the top-10 ranked female chess players in the United States, and I’m currently participating in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship held in St. Louis.

What makes you a geek?

My obsession with solving hard problems. Chess is an activity where you have to make decision after decision when the clock is ticking, solving one problem after another. This fascinated me as a kid and by age 7, I had already traveled to many different regional and national championships and became quite good at it. My obsession with chess really kicked in during my teenage years where I had access to a world famous chess club in New York, spending endless hours studying and playing chess, which propelled me to move up in the rankings from the top 100 in the country to the top 10. Now I am more passionate about science, but the skill-set is basically the same. Give me a 24-hour shift at synchrotron, and I would not trade it for any other activity.

Android, iOS, or other?

iOS. I need quick and easy access to emails, phone, Twitter and camera.

Your favorite comic book hero and why?

Batman. He has Dostoyevskian dualism and darkness inherent to his character.

What gadget can’t you live without?

I don’t think Cray computer is exactly a gadget, so I would say my laptop.

What is the last book or ebook that you read?

I prefer short stories. For that reason I love fiction stories published in the New Yorker (keeping up with my roots). Knowing my passion for short stories my friend’s recent gift — a collection of stories by George Saunders called “The Tenth of December” — is wonderful. It is quite emotionally intense, bringing up the questions of morality and humanity in our era, while at the same time being humorous.

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If you could meet anyone (living or dead) for lunch who would it be and why?

Both in science and chess, women are under-represented, and I have great respect for women who managed to bring significant contributions in these fields. Marie Curie is my ultimate hero; her work on radioactivity and her being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (and in two fields!) is absolutely impressive. I would want to ask her what was it like to be a pioneer in those times and what it took to become so good.

What do you look for in a guy? And does he need to be a geek too?

He should have some purpose and idea about what he wants to do with his life. It is best for him to be ambitious and to pursue something that requires tremendous dedication. So I guess I am looking for a geeky guy?