Issue Date: November 17, 2008
Chemistry, Culture, and Camaraderie
LUGGING HUGE SUITCASES stuffed with clothes, chemistry books, and souvenirs from home, hundreds of high school students from around the world traveled to Budapest, Hungary, this past summer to compete in the 40th International Chemistry Olympiad, held on July 12–21.
Although the teenagers were from countries as culturally dissimilar as the U.S. and China, Iceland and Mongolia, and Kuwait and Uruguay, they shared a common interest in chemistry and a desire to make their countries proud by bringing home gold medals.
During the course of the competition, however, many of the participants came to realize that what really mattered was not the color of the medal they won, or whether they won any medal at all. What was more important was that they gained an appreciation for other cultures, a network of friends from around the world, and most important, confidence in themselves.
For a budding scientist, that experience is worth its weight in gold.
C&EN tagged along with the U.S. delegation for a rare look inside the Olympiad. This was the first time in the 40-year history of the competition that a reporter has traveled with the students.
The U.S. delegation consisted of students Jonathan D. Lee of Northridge, Calif.; Andrew Liu of Chesterfield, Mo.; Yuxin Xie of East Brunswick, N.J.; and Jenny Lu of Southbury, Conn.
They were accompanied by head mentor Kara Pezzi, a chemistry teacher at Appleton East High School, in Wisconsin; mentor Will Lynch, a professor of chemistry at Armstrong Atlantic State University, in Savannah, Ga.; and scientific observer J. L. Kiappes, who won a silver medal at the Olympiad in Kiel, Germany, in 2004 and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry and a D.Phil. in biochemistry in a joint program between Scripps Research Institute and the University of Oxford.
The students from the U.S. became instant friends with students from other English-speaking countries, including Canada and New Zealand, and even sported each other's flags. Many of the Olympiad participants also ventured outside of their comfort zones and tried connecting with students from cultures completely different from their own.
ONE EVENING in the dorm at the University of Gödöllo??, just outside of Budapest, where the students were staying, Toghrul Almammadov of Azerbaijan was trying to explain to Mario López Moya of Spain how Azerbaijan selects students for the Olympiad, but Almammadov struggled to find the right words in English. Sensing his new friend's anxiety, Moya gently told him, "Take your time." Almammadov smiled and seemed to relax.
Another evening, Chinese team member Xiu Yuan Li spotted Irénée Frérot of France, whom he had met earlier in the week, and called out, "Bon soir," which in French means "good evening." Frérot looked over and yelled back, "Ni hao," which in Mandarin means "hello." Both students beamed with pride.
Many students brought souvenirs from home, such as coins, key chains, handmade crafts, and candies, which they eagerly passed out to their newfound friends, while taking the opportunity to explain their cultures. They practiced saying "thank you" in each other's languages and clambered for a photo op. The students learned things about their cohorts from around the world that can never be taught in a classroom or a lab.
YET THE OLYMPIAD wasn't always a global competition. "At the very beginning, this competition was only for socialist countries," said Anton Sirota of Slovakia, who has been involved in the competition since its inception.
The first Olympiad was held in Prague in 1968, in the thick of the Cold War and at a particularly tumultuous moment in Czechoslovakia's history. Only Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary participated that year, with a total of 18 students. The U.S. joined the Olympiad in 1984. By then, there were 20 participating countries, and the number of students had grown to 76. This year, 257 students from 66 countries took part.
Although the Olympiad has grown tremendously in size, its focus has remained the same. "We have one thing in common, and that's that we love chemistry," said András Kotschy, chairman of the organizing committee for the 40th International Chemistry Olympiad. "This is a celebration of chemistry."
At the heart of the competition are two five-hour exams that test the students' knowledge in both theory and practice, but a majority of the 10-day program consists of sightseeing in and around the host city and various activities that expose the students to local culture and cuisine. In Budapest, the students toured the Parliament building, tried their hand at Hungarian archery, and even enjoyed goulash, a traditional Hungarian stew.
Kotschy said that the program is intended to be both fun and educational. "This is a reward for going through the selection process," he said. "This is the fruit of their efforts, and they should enjoy every minute of it."
Some students admitted that they even enjoyed taking the exams. Anupam Dev Goel, a member of the Indian team, emerged from the five-hour practical exam with a huge grin on his face—not because he felt that he aced the exam, but because he knew that he had experienced something that thousands of students back home can only dream of.
THE PROCESS for selecting students for the Olympiad can be highly competitive. In the U.S., for example, more than 10,000 students take the local exam. From there, roughly 1,000 qualify to take the national exam, and the top 20 scorers on that exam go on to participate in an intensive two-week study camp at the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo. At the end of the camp, the top four scorers on a combination of exams and lab work go on to represent the U.S. in the international competition.
The selection process is even more competitive in China, where more than 150,000 students compete for a spot on the nation's four-member team.
Some countries give their students a significant incentive to win a gold medal. Tai-Shan Fang, who was head mentor for the team from Chinese Taipei (otherwise known as Taiwan) for 18 years, said that any student from Taiwan who wins a gold medal will receive 200,000 Taiwanese dollars (approximately $6,200 U.S.) and paid tuition through their Ph.D. studies if they choose to major in chemistry. "We are trying to cultivate the best R&D in chemistry," said Fang.
Tajikistan also takes winning very seriously. Sherali Tursunbadalov, a mentor from Tajikistan, said it's very important for the country to win medals because it showcases Tajikistan's strength in chemistry. Unfortunately, the country wanted to win so badly this year that the students and their mentors were caught cheating on the theoretical exam and were given zero points for the entire competition.
Although the incentive to take home the top prize is strong, many realize that there's more to the experience than winning. "There's an awful lot that these kids get out of the program that has nothing to do with chemistry," said the U.S.'s Lynch. "It has to do with growing up and learning to interact with people in different settings."
Lianyun Duan, head mentor for the Chinese team, agreed. "The main purpose of our participation is to let the students have the opportunity to participate and communicate with the world. Of course, we hope to win gold, but this is not our primary goal."
The rewards of participating in the International Chemistry Olympiad extend well beyond the competition. Márton Vass, who was on the Hungarian team in Kiel in 2004 and in Gyeongsan, South Korea, in 2006 and won silver medals both times, said that his participation in the competitions led to many other opportunities to travel. After the trip to Korea, he traveled to Iceland to visit friends he had made at the competition.
Since then, Vass has traveled to nearly two dozen other countries. "You can read all the scientific publications out there, but there's no substitute for talking to and getting to know other scientists around the world," he said. "It gives you a whole new perspective on global science and collaboration with international colleagues."
Vass, who served as head student guide this year and is now an undergraduate majoring in chemistry at Eötvös Loránd University, in Budapest, said that he looks forward to seeing some of this year's Olympiad participants at future scientific meetings.
"After the closing ceremony, if you don't get a medal, you feel a little sad. But you forget about it in half an hour," Vass said. "You'll never forget the experience you had," he added.
At the awards ceremony at the conclusion of this year's competition, 30 students received gold medals, 52 took home silver medals, and 79 earned bronze medals (C&EN, July 28, page 17). There were also 10 honorable mentions.
Kotschy explained that there are so many winners because it's important to give the students a sense of achievement. "If you did it the conventional way, you'd have 254 losers, and you don't want to have 254 losers," he said.
On the last night of the Olympiad, many students stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, exchanging contact information, signing each others lab coats, and sharing memories from a summer they'll never forget.
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