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K-12 Education

China brings home top 4 golds in chemistry olympiad

US team receives 2 gold and 2 silver medals

by Alla Katsnelson, special to C&EN
August 2, 2021


Image shows a virtual auditorium with avatars of International Chemistry Olympiad participants in the audience.
Credit: The 53rd International Chemistry Olympiad
The 53rd International Chemistry Olympiad, hosted by Japan, was a virtual event.

Students from China garnered the top four gold medals in the 53rd International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO), held July 25–Aug. 2. The US team received two gold and two silver medals.

In all, more than 300 students from 79 countries participated. Shu Yang, Zhangyi Huang, Xinyu Cai, and Bangsen Zhao of China placed first through fourth, respectively. Sobirjon Amanov of Uzbekistan rounded out the top five finishers.

This year’s competition was slated to take place in Japan, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students logged into the week-long Olympiad virtually. They sat for the 5-hour exam on Wednesday, July 28, and the full results were posted Aug. 3. Unlike last year , however, the US team and their mentors were able to gather in Washington, DC, at the offices of the American Chemical Society.

“The kids did really awesome,” says Joseph Houck of Pennsylvania State University, who served as the team’s head mentor. “We had a really good collegial team atmosphere, and to be able to have everyone here together was really fun.”

Photo shows the four members of the US Chemistry Olympiad team and their mentors in ACS headquarters.
Credit: David Horwitz
Members of the US Chemistry Olympiad team and their mentors (from left): Yitian Zhu, Laura Serbulea, Nikhil Seshadri, Esther Hines, Kien Phuong, Joseph Houck, Qiyang Zhou

The US team, which is sponsored by the American Chemical Society, consisted of Kien Phuong from Chevy Chase, Maryland; Nikhil Seshadri from San Diego, California; Qiyang Zhou from Lawrenceville, New Jersey; and Yitian Zhu from Katy, Texas. Zhou placed 13th and Zhu 27th in the gold category, out of a total of 33 gold medals. Seshadri placed 9th and Phuong 40th in the silver category, out of a total of 67 silver medals.

Working together as a team was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the competition, says Zhu. She and her teammates met every few days to assign problems to each other. “If there was something one of us didn’t know, another person would explain it,” she says. “I learned so much from these other kids. It would be impossible for me to learn it on my own studying from a textbook.”

“It was a great honor to represent the US in this international competition,” says Phuong.

In addition to Houck, mentors included Esther Hines of Billerica Memorial High School in Massachusetts and Laura Serbulea of the University of Virginia.

Although students were not able to travel to Japan, organizers created a virtual reality space in which students could engage through their avatars in order to get to know each other. They also organized virtual field trips to sites in Japan, such as a visit to the Himeji Castle and a tour of the synchrotron facility SPring-8.

For its part, the US team was also able to explore Washington DC in real life by getting to know the ACS offices, visiting several museums throughout the city, hiking in Great Falls National Park, and meeting staffers from their home state’s representative’s or senator’s office.

“This IChO is very unique in that we got to learn more about our own country as well as about Japan,” says Zhu.


This story was updated on Aug. 3, 2021, to include information about the final standings released on that date. An earlier version only included information about the top three gold winners and that the US team received two gold and two silver medals.



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