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In three weeks’ time, 280 high-school chemistry students from all over the world will meet in Cambridge in the UK for their most gruelling academic experience to date: the 41st International Chemistry Olympiad.

Founded in eastern Europe in the late 1960s, in part to increase contact with other countries, the Olympiad competitions are held every year in chemistry, physics, biology, maths and, more recently, informatics. Standards are high. Those 280 students have come through tough selection procedures in their home nations, each country putting just four entrants forward. In the UK, for instance, 2000 chemistry students were whittled down to about 20 via a two-hour exam, and the final four were those who came top in a subsequent three hour theory and three hour practical exam.


At least one of those four students – Peter Bullock of RGS Worcester & The Alice Ottley School in Worcester, UK – emerged unscathed because I met him this morning here at Lindau. Bullock is one of two UK school students to be have been invited to this year’s chemistry meeting on the strength of their performance in the Olympiad selection procedure. The other is Matthew Yan from Tonbridge School in Kent, who missed out on the final four but plans to renter next year’s contest.

The pair appeared delighted to get a taste of the less prescriptive, real world of chemistry research and to rub shoulders with the 23 laureates and 580 young researchers (who themselves have been selected from 20,000 applicants) milling about the sweaty Lindau conference centre. They’re slumming it in the local youth hostel along with a few German Olympiad contenders.

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Both seem pretty Nobel-savvy. “If you’re a Nobel prize winner then it means you have got to the top of your field in science,” says Bullock. “But they’re still people – and there’s all sorts of them, some are outgoing, some are really really quiet.” At least he can name a lot more laureates than he could last week.

Bullock protested when I suggested they left the welcome party early last night. “It wasn’t that early. I enjoyed the dinner and the dance, in an awkward sort of way.” (I guess he was referring partly to the lighting, which was just a bit too bright to properly cut loose on the dance floor).

One guy said being a scientist was just like a job basically, a bit like being self employed.

Coming to Lindau as a pupil must be a great eye opener, since school lessons and even undergraduate university courses paint a rather different picture of science than the reality of doing it. “One guy said [being a scientist] was just like a job basically, a bit like being self employed,” said Bullock.

So what goes on during the closed afternoon discussions between young researchers, pupils and the laureates, from which lowly journalists and even Lindau organizers are banned? According to Bullock, the room was overflowing yesterday afternoon and the format was more like a lecture followed by lots of questions than a discussion.

“A lot of the questions revolved around the laureates themselves,” says Yan. “People wanted to know what motivated them, what kept them going etc.” Bullock added that if you’re interested in a laureate’s research or the science side of things, all you need to do is go to Google.

The youngest participant at this year’s chemistry Olympiad is just 14 years old, but Bullock (18) is not fazed by the competition. The feel of the Olympiad exam is very different to the “A-level” exams taken by UK students, with big, complicated questions designed to make students think rather than simply recall facts (as seems increasingly to be the case in UK science education).

Bullock and Yan have not yet decided to become chemists, although Bullock suspects he is being groomed for such a destiny. One of the difficulties in recruiting good chemistry students at university, according to Peter Wothers of Cambridge University (who is accompanying Bullock and Yan at Lindau), is that they often end up enrolling in medicine. Bullock is starting a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge this October (which includes a chemistry component), and Yan will be applying to the same course next year.

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of good old-fashioned academic selection

Neither has his heart set on winning a Nobel prize, and Bullock reckons the easiest way to return to Lindau wearing a coveted blue neck band is to marry a laureate. But he has set his sights on achieving at least a bronze medal at the Olympiad next month. “I don’t want to go home empty handed, it would be embarrassing.”

That fate awaits 40% of the entrants, but I’d say there’s nothing wrong with a bit of good old-fashioned academic selection. After all, science can be a ruthless business when it comes to picking winners.


 » Matthew Chalmers completed a PhD in physics and works as a freelance writer. i-ec50973aaa80d157198edd29ee8b77f8-chalmers45.jpg