Issue Date: September 3, 2007
Chemistry Olympians: Where are they now?
Are you a high school chemistry student interested in traveling abroad, meeting new and interesting people, and increasing your global awareness? Does the idea of being one of just four students representing the U.S. in an international competition appeal to you? How about winning a medal for your chemistry skills? Imagine where all of this could take you in the future.
For more than 20 years, U.S. high school students have had the opportunity to take part in the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO). The competition showcases the best of the best, but its benefits last long after the medals are awarded and the teams return home. Former olympians interviewed by C&EN are quick to note the experience's lasting impact as they move forward in their educations and into their careers.
C&EN has written previously about former chemistry olympians (C&EN, June 25, 2001, page 35). A recent question from a reader asking what former team members are doing now made us wonder, too. To find out, C&EN attempted to contact by e-mail 18 members of U.S. Chemistry Olympiad teams from as early as 1987 to as recent as 2004, and reached about half of them. Some have gone into chemistry; others were drawn in different directions. All of them spoke fondly about their memories and the prominent role IChO has played in their careers.
"All the studying I did got me quite interested in inorganic chemistry and classical physics, which is very close to what I do today," says Jeff Snyder, a member of the 1987 U.S. team when Veszprem, Hungary, hosted IChO. Snyder, who took home a bronze medal, is a faculty associate in materials science at California Institute of Technology. Snyder received a B.S. in physics, chemistry, and mathematics from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He was a senior member of the technical staff at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1997 to 2006, and his current research focuses on thermoelectric materials and devices.
Snyder recalls that "study camp was great preparation for college. It was the first time I'd been around that many people who were smart, academically oriented, and creative." The training camp, he adds, was a crash course in biochemistry and organic chemistry, and he had never done any organic chemistry in the lab before.
The study—or training—camp is held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Every summer, 20 high school students selected through local competitions across the U.S. come together for an intense two weeks of work to qualify for the national team.
Study camp is organized by the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad office at American Chemical Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., with the assistance of the U.S. Air Force Academy camp director. At the end of study camp, mentors select four students (plus two alternates) as the U.S. team to compete against teams representing dozens of other countries.
What happens at the study camp is just the beginning. IChO also was Snyder's first encounter with international cultures. "We knew so little about most of the other countries compared to what they knew about the U.S.," he says. He says he spent most of his time talking with Yugoslavian, Soviet, Hungarian, British, and Canadian students.
"We didn't do much shopping," he says. "The clothing was drab, and the high-end electronics looked like low-end stuff we had here. The Russians went on a shopping spree, because the goods were better than what they had back home. The Hungarians pointed out the KGB guys who 'chaperoned' the Russians."
Most of all, Snyder says, it was an opportunity to learn about a way of life in Eastern Europe that had all but vanished when in the 1990s he returned as a graduate student to Germany, where he spent a year and a half doing inorganic solid-state chemistry.
Binghai Ling, a gold medalist on the 2001 U.S. team that competed in Mumbai, India, also cites IChO's influence on his career decision. "Had it not been for the olympiad, I don't think I would have focused on chemistry as much as I did," he says. "The first thing I decided when I got to Caltech was to major in chemistry. It might have been physics or math otherwise, because that is what I was interested in before the olympiad."
Ling's path since then has taken him from a bachelor's degree from Caltech to an M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is in his second year. He decided he likes research, but also has an interest in helping people through medicine. He hopes to settle on future research that allows him to use chemical techniques toward medical advancements.
Others reminisced about the strong sense of camaraderie and support they felt during study camp. J. L. Kiappes, who won a silver medal in Kiel, Germany, in 2004, recalls: "Cramming an undergraduate curriculum into two weeks could drive a lot of people crazy, but the personalities and humor of those around me made it not just bearable but one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. At times, I think we ended up entertaining each other more than studying."
Jason Chen, who went to Moscow in 1996 and Montreal in 1997, recalls an "aha!" moment while studying with a fellow student in 1996. "He sat me down to discuss a problem I was working on because it was pretty clear to him that I was guessing the answer rather than rationally thinking it through," he says. "He was the one who finally got me to be analytical about organic chemistry instead of memorizing everything. At that point, I expected to not make the team, largely because I didn't understand organic chemistry. I honestly believe that his help made the difference on the final exam."
Chen brought home a bronze medal in 1996 and a gold in 1997. In between, he took college-level classes in physical and organic chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., which he says helped tremendously on his second trip to study camp. Because of his study camp experience, Chen decided to study organic chemistry in college and to pursue his interest in chemistry rather than pre-med.
After graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from Harvard University in 2001, he worked as a medicinal chemist at Enanta Pharmaceuticals, Watertown, Mass., for two years. Chen is now a graduate student at Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif., studying under K. C. Nicolaou.
Thomas Snyder described study camp as "two weeks of nonstop chemistry but an incredible amount of fun. The Air Force Academy was terrific, and the memories range from eating in Mitchell Hall to hiking in the mountains and the phenomenal chance to meet and talk with Nobel Laureates like Thomas Cech," he says. "I still carry around the periodic table card in my wallet that I got from Dr. Ron Furstenau, a chemistry professor at the academy, who told us we should carry it in case an attractive member of the opposite sex might come up at a party and ask for the atomic weight of gold."
He adds: "The program really reinforced for me how broad the field is and how central chemistry is to the study of so many areas. Study camp strengthened my love for chemistry and made it easy to list as my major when I first started college. It also didn't hurt that the extra studying I had done for the olympiad placed me out of freshman chemistry and into more advanced course work."
Snyder attended study camp in 1997 and made the U.S. team that competed in Melbourne, Australia, in 1998, where he won a gold medal. Now he represents the U.S. in a different arena—puzzle competitions. In June, Snyder won the online Google U.S. Puzzle Championship, solving 19 of 20 puzzles. In March, he won the World Sudoku Championship, which took place in Prague, Czech Republic.
When he's not conquering the puzzle universe, Snyder does chemistry. In August 2007, he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard under David Liu, and he is now a postdoc with Stephen Quake at Stanford University, where he is focusing on developing new techniques for the synthesis and discovery of small molecules.
Other competitors found math more compelling than chemistry. Wei Ho's parents both majored in math—her father has a Ph.D.—but for a long time, she resisted its siren call. When Ho entered Harvard as an undergraduate, she originally majored in chemistry but gravitated back toward math. "There was a lot more emphasis in my family on math," she says, "but I didn't want to be like my parents. I liked being in the lab but wasn't sure I wanted to spend my life in chemistry. Math seemed more elegant to me, and it came naturally."
Currently, Ho is working on her Ph.D. in math at Princeton University, specifically in number theory and algebraic geometry. She attended study camp in 1997 and made the 1998 (Melbourne) and 1999 (Bangkok, Thailand) teams, winning a bronze and a gold medal, respectively. Her experience, she says, "changed my life. I got to meet a lot of other students who I still stay in touch with. I even met someone in the dining hall at Princeton who was on the Chinese team. Originally, I thought the point was about competing and trying to do well on a chemistry test, but it's really an ambassadorial experience. It was amazing that we could talk to students from other countries. Everyone was so open and friendly."
Ho says her experience allowed her to see "the broad swaths and subdisciplines of chemistry." Ultimately, she says, she realized that she liked the mathematical aspects of chemistry best—something that probably wouldn't have happened otherwise.
Nick Loehr, a silver medalist on the 1994 team that competed in Oslo, Norway, says he was already leaning toward mathematics before IChO. "My favorite subjects in school have always been math and computer science, followed by physics," he says. "My interest in molecular biology was fueled in part by the organic chemistry they taught at study camp. It was a really positive experience overall, even though my career path didn't lead into chemistry at the end."
In fact, that year Loehr took the qualifying exams for the math, physics, and chemistry olympiads. He qualified for the physics and chemistry camps but could choose only one. He picked the chemistry camp since it overlapped with his high school graduation, thereby "escaping the undesirable task of writing a valedictorian speech to deliver."
Right after IChO, Loehr entered Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University as a math and computer science major. Then he spent five years in graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, earning his Ph.D., followed by two years as a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and two years as an assistant math professor at the College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va. This fall, he will return to Virginia Tech as an assistant professor in the math department.
Kiappes and Ho have since returned to study camp as peer mentors, which both describe as a very different experience. "A peer mentor is someone who has been through study camp and can help out with the day-to-day work," says Ho, who took on the role in 2005. "The students find it easier to ask peer mentors questions, since they have nothing to do with the grading or deciding who will make the travel team. They also function as role models for the students."
Kiappes participated as a peer mentor for the 2006 and 2007 study camps. He was also able to attend this year's competition in Moscow as the U.S. scientific observer. "Returning to camp and seeing it from another side made me appreciate just how much work mentors do," he says. "Sitting in on lectures and tutoring students helped me realize how much I enjoy teaching." Kiappes will receive a B.S. in chemistry from Rice University next year and plans to get his Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry.
If you're thinking that you need to be an overachiever to make it to study camp, think again. Everyone C&EN talked to highly recommends the experience to any high school student. "I had no clue that I had a shot, but my AP teacher suggested I give it a try," Ling says. "I was shocked when I got the letter saying I had been accepted to study camp. If I hadn't tried or my teacher hadn't told me, it would have been a missed chance."
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- Chemistry Olympians: Where are they now?
- Former team members reflect on the olympiad's lasting impact on their education and careers
- Chemical & Engineering News
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