A Journey To Olympic Gold

Did you know that Olympiads are not just meant for sportsmen? Every year, the most gifted and talented high school chemistry students from all over the world compete for gold medals in the International Chemistry Olympiad (ICHO). Alexander Zhigalin and Ruslan Kotlyarov, the winners of this year’s ICHO, held in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand in July, share their success stories and give advice on how to train for such competitions. Let’s start from the very beginning.

The International Chemistry Olympiad is a global event that is highly respected by its participants. It also opens doors to the winners and runners-up when they apply to top universities around the world. The ICHO was first held in 1968 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Every year, the competition changes its location, but there is still one thing that remains the same. The Olympiad always has two rounds, the theoretical round and the practical one. As a matter of fact, it is a tradition that the tasks are prepared by the host country. Also, participants should not worry that some teams will outnumber other ones as over the years the organizers have come up with a limit in the number of participants from one country– six members – four candidates and two mentors, to be exact. Interestingly enough, participants who come from all corners of the world never face difficulties in understanding the tasks as the Olympiad’s tasks are translated into different languages in the utmost secrecy before the competition.

Finding yourself is a real challenge for Generation Y. It’s not surprising that in a world that is changing faster than ever it is hard to predict what jobs will be in demand in 5-10 years. But Alexander and Ruslan have found their passion.

The team CHEM.MSU.SU

How did you find your passion for Chemistry?

A.: At the end of 8th grade I started watching the Breaking Bad series. Then I bought a Chemistry book and went deep into it.

R.: I’ve never watched this series. When I was about five years old, I read my first Chemistry textbook, which was a textbook for 8th graders, and I understood it. But I first took a serious interest in Chemistry when I was 13.

Chemistry requires lab work along with a theoretical foundation. Where did you find the right lab?

A.: After middle school I thought about applying to the Chemical Lyceum, but they specialized more in research than in Olympiads. The same year I attended a club where we were preparing for exams and had a plenty of time in the lab. I would go there a few times a week and stay for hours.

R.: As for me, I worked in a laboratory for the last two years of high school, and that’s where I got hands-on experience.

A.: Despite the fact that I took a great interest in Chemistry on my own, I still believe that teachers play an important role when it comes to Olympiads.

R.: Yes, it’s important to study under the right people.

If so, who are your mentors?

A.: I would say my mentors are the tutors who trained us for the ICHO. They are ex-Olympiad winners themselves. I’d name Mr. Alexander Belov, senior researcher in the Department of Physical Chemistry in the Faculty of Chemistry at Lomonosov Moscow State University; Mr. Ilya Glebov, Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Chemistry in the Faculty of Chemistry at Lomonosov Moscow State University; and Mr. Leonid Romashov, PhD in Chemistry, N.D. Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

R.: I will also mention Mr. Khokhlov, post-graduate student in the Department of Physical Chemistry in the Faculty of Chemistry at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Moreover, both Alexander and I would like to mention Mr. Maxim Kozlov.

Would you like to teach in the future?

R.: Yes, within reasonable limits. I have already trained 10th graders in my lyceum for Olympiads.

A.: Yes, definitely. Unfortunately, I don’t have experience yet, but I hope I will get a chance to work this year while applying for a university abroad. Hopefully, I will help train the Russian team for the next ICHO.

Alexander Zhigalin and Ruslan Kotlyarov

There are short-term courses that help prepare for exams and Olympiads. What do you think about them?

R.: I don’t have ideas for my own short-term courses, but when I tutored students at school I would see them every day and make sure they had something to work on. So it was a year-round afterschool class. Respecting basic concepts, I expected my students to learn everything on their own.

A.: I consider short-term courses for students with different levels of knowledge almost inefficient. Typically, those who truly want to prepare for Olympiads either study on their own or attend official training events if there are such in their home towns.

R.: I didn’t buy a book to prepare for the Olympiads except for Albert L. Lehninger’s works. There are plenty of resources online.

A.: There is plenty of literature in Russian that is enough to get ready for Olympiads. Sometimes we have to search for additional information, and I always browse the Internet for research articles in English.

Can chemists survive without knowledge of English?

A.: Yes, they can survive in Russia or in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The only problem is that the leading science journals accept research articles in English. As a result, the English language is a necessity when it comes to international collaboration. It doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect English, but at least something.

If so, is there a point in learning other languages?

A.: Well, one can easily succeed with only knowledge of English.

R.: Other languages are not a necessity, they are a luxury.

The team CHEM.MSU.SU

ICHO winners receive an ultimate opportunity to enroll at any university in the world. Which universities have you chosen?

A.: I haven’t applied anywhere; I’m taking a gap year and plan on starting this whole application process soon. Like Ruslan, I want to study abroad. I want to work on Informatics and Physics, get a driving license, and get some teaching experience during this year.

R.: I have received an unconditional offer from Cambridge. I thought I was a good candidate, so I applied for a scholarship at the beginning of my last year in school. There is a website called UCAS.com where you create an account and submit information concerning your final grades, your high school, and the names of the teachers who will provide you with reference letters. A letter of motivation is also among the main criteria. And, by the way, whatever you submit is always checked for plagiarism.

Do you think love between two chemists is possible?

A.: It is statistically a challenge if we are talking about two chemists of opposite gender. This is because the gender balance is shifted towards men in the field of Chemistry. But now more girls are studying Chemistry, so we’ll see.

Next year the International Chemistry Olympiad will celebrate its 50th anniversary and will welcome participants in two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where 50 years ago the first ICHO was held.

Photos: ICHO

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