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ACS News

Geniuses in the making

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 22, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 25

 

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of talking with the 20 students who had been selected to take part in the American Chemical Society–sponsored Chemistry Olympiad Study Camp. The students, ages 15–18, were competing for a spot on the four-strong team that will represent the US in the 51st International Chemistry Olympiad in Paris on July 21–30 (see page 39).

The passion for—and knowledge of—chemistry shared by these high school students is second to none. They have worked hard all year, but their schedule as they go through the summer camp is grueling. When faced with 4 hours of lab work in the mornings and tests and further training for another 3–4 hours in the afternoon, their enthusiasm and commitment become doubly important.

For the first time ever, the program offered a career-related presentation with four speakers offering advice—and one would hope some inspiration—on opportunities in industry and academia, of course, but also in often-overlooked fields such as policy making and publishing and science communication, which is the area I represented. A show of hands ahead of the presentations suggested that most students were predisposed to considering a career in academia. When the students were asked why they had this preference, it seemed to be related to better awareness of what such a career choice would entail.

Although the students were interested in what the four speakers had to say, it was clear that career guidance was a bonus and what they were there to do was to fully immerse themselves in chemistry. They patiently listened to our presentations but all perked up—I mean this literally: their backs straightened and bodies moved forward on their chairs—when Clare N. Muhoro, a professor of chemistry at Towson University and our speaker representing academia, highlighted her area of research. She had included some reaction mechanisms and chemical structures in her slides, and that did it. The students spontaneously gathered in small groups and put pen to paper, and questions started pouring in about, for example, how the reactivity of a certain group may vary when attached to a chain rather than an aromatic ring and about the stereochemistry of a proposed substrate. I was gobsmacked: these young folks can really think and talk chemistry.

I know the use of the word genius is quite loaded and should be used sparingly, but the expression that kept coming to my head was “genius in the making.” I think this was partly inspired by my reading of an article that same day about mathematician John Forbes Nash, of Nash equilibrium fame and, to this date, the only individual to have ever been awarded both the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the Abel Prize. Nash was born on June 13, 1928, and a few news outlets were marking what would have been his 91st birthday.

Nash, who incidentally had initially majored in chemical engineering and then switched to chemistry before finally settling on mathematics, had himself been described many times as a genius. But one of the most famous occasions and of particular relevance to this story is when one of his professors, Richard J. Duffin, wrote a letter recommending he be accepted to Princeton University’s graduate program. It is worth noting that at the time of the missive, Nash was just a couple of years older than our average olympiad hopeful. It briefly states:

“This is to recommend Mr. John F. Nash, Jr. who has applied for entrance to the graduate college at Princeton.

“Mr. Nash is nineteen years old and is graduating from Carnegie Tech in June. He is a mathematical genius.”

Enough said. Whether geniuses of Nash’s brilliance or not, these students no doubt will go on to do great things within the chemical sciences or beyond. It is brilliant to observe such talented people learning, sharing, and enjoying our sciences. I wish the four finalists luck in Paris.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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