“A country which is in advance of the rest of the world in chemistry will also be foremost in wealth and general prosperity” — William Ramsay

This year, at the 51st International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO), 80 countries met in Paris, France from July 21-30, 2019 to compete in the most challenging theoretical and practical chemistry exams offered to an international audience. IChO is the International “Chemistry Olympics”, in which candidates compete for gold, silver and bronze medals, network with top Chemistry students from around the world and demonstrate to other countries what it means to be Canadian.

Only high school students who have not yet studied Chemistry for credit at a university level are eligible for IChO. The students gathered at this competition represent the very best chemistry students from their respective countries. Our Canadian team reveled in the opportunity to develop friendships with like-minded, hard-working students from other countries. These international connections may last them a lifetime and provide springboards for new discoveries in science globally. In the Canadian IChO team members’ own words, here is what the competition meant to them:

“Perhaps the biggest thing that stood out to me were the people. Everybody had a shared interest in chemistry and science in general and were open to talk. This was a community that made you feel welcomed” (Eric Chen, IChO silver medalist)

This year’s Canadian Team included three students from British Columbia: Colin Cai, a grade 11 student from Magee Secondary School, Soresu Juyo, a grade 12 student from Vancouver Learning Network and Henry Nguyen, a grade 10 student from University Hill Secondary School. There was also a student from Ontario, Eric Shen, a grade 11 student from Bayview Secondary School.

“Participating at the IChO allowed me to meet some of the top chemistry geniuses of our generation. It has not fully sunk in that I added one of the best Chinese and US [Chemistry] students on social media, and that Colin got his tie tied by the absolute winner. Getting to know people like them is invaluable as a networking opportunity, as you can have people that are incomprehensibly better than you as a resource to depend on in the future.” (Soresu Juya, Bronze Medalist)

At IChO 2019, students wrote a very challenging 5-hour theoretical exam and then completed three simultaneous labs during a second 5-hour interval. Student performed the practical and wrote the theoretical exams in the hottest temperatures on record in Paris. However, they also had one of the most famous views overlooking the Eiffel Tower from the 8th– and 10th-storey labs.

When the students were not writing exams, they toured Paris and got to know the members of the other teams. Every team has a mascot and mascot stealing is a time honoured pastime between countries IChO. Eric gave this wonderful summary about some of his favorite memories of IChO 2019:

“… the guides cheering for the students upon finishing the theoretical exam and returning to the auditorium; eating chips and mascot-stealing in the Gardens of Versailles; eating overly-priced macrons at Montmartre; walking around Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower at night; chasing pigeons on the small alleyways of Paris; eating delicious crepes with the team members and guide; talking about our favourite chapters of Clayden and marveling at the impossible questions of China’s national selection exam; and, of course, having the honour to meet and make friends with students so smart from all around the world. (Eric Shen)

As students arrive in the host country of a science Olympiad, they must surrender all communication devices, which is quite a shock. Over the last five years, students on the Canadian teams have reflected that, sometimes to their surprise, giving up their phones has unexpected positive effects.

“…while having my phone taken away seemed difficult, it actually ‘catalyzed’ my fun. In the process, I got really good at ping pong, brushed up on my Vietnamese speaking, got many gifts from the Latino countries, could point to where Kazakhstan and El Salvador was on the map, realized how both lucky and unlucky I was to have lived in Canada, and discovered the surprising creativity of over 300 students with no phones for one week.” (Henry Nguyen)

Top Canadian Science students benefit immensely from a National commitment to providing opportunities for them to grow.  National Competitions like the Canadian Chemistry Contest, a high-level competition supported financially by the Chemistry Society of Canada and the National Chemistry Olympiad program sponsored by the University of Toronto, provide pathways for young Chemistry enthusiasts to develop their skills in science, critical thinking and problem-solving. These contests cover material from the final year of chemistry that students take in high school or Québec’s Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel. The University of Waterloo high school Chemistry contests have content for students who have taken one or two full courses in high school. Colin Cai, reflects that these types of contests are for all students interested in chemistry:

“The magic of chemistry is that questions aren’t as scary as you might think. After solving my first set of preparatory problems, I decided to take a risk and try to get on the IChO team. When people think about science Olympiads, they think of academic competitions made for a few very talented students. However, that isn’t the case. The contest is open to all students and offers the chance for them to demonstrate their understanding. As long as they are interested in pursuing chemistry, the contests are meant for them.” (Colin Cai)

The 2019 IChO team achieved one silver and two bronze medals and they developed friendships with chemistry students around the world. When they received their medals, they proudly displayed the Canadian Flag on an international stage at “La Maison de la Chimie”.

Student qualification for the national IChO team in countries like Russia, China, Korea, and India is highly regarded and supported by National Ministries of Education, research institutes and Industry. Many students who qualify for their National IChO teams gain entry and full scholarships to the very best national universities. Here in Canada, Blachford, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia have been the Canadian IChO team’s biggest supporters but we have yet to gain recognition for the important role that Science Olympiad competitions play in advancing STEM excellence for Canadian youth on a global front.

“Participation at the IChO, showed me that studying chemistry has no limits. My only roadblock was my hard work and dedication. I wasn’t aware of how much dedication and passion students from other countries had for chemistry” (Henry Nguyen, IChO bronze medalist)

Students are clamoring for these types of opportunities. The Government of Canada describes the importance of STEM in our country as follows on their website: “…as more and more businesses and organizations seek to innovate and to modernize and grow their businesses, the demand for people who can fill STEM-related jobs will only continue to increase. We need to ensure that our workforce can meet the challenges of the future”. The Canadian Chemistry Olympiad training program provides training and networking opportunities to support STEM excellence and innovation.

A significant number of the alumni of IChO teams have become innovators and global leaders in Chemistry, Science and Technology. Students who were in the CCO training programs have gone on to do PhDs in Chemistry, Physics and Life Sciences. Whatever they do, they bring a rich knowledge of chemistry.

 We need to create an increasingly sustainable and widespread network within each Province to promote and leverage opportunities like the CCC, the CCO and IChO for Canadian students. Last year, over 700 students wrote the Canadian Chemistry contest and over 200 wrote the CCO exam and participated in the 8-month training program. In 2020, we are hoping to double those numbers.

Despite our lack of funding, a dedicated group of volunteers who believe in the importance of these opportunities is pushing forward and in December 2019, Canada will send its first ever 6-member team to the 16th annual Junior Science Olympiad Team in Doha, Qatar. At IJSO, students will compete in the STEM triathalon of Biology, Chemistry and Physics against 70 other countries in the most challenging competition for students 15 and under. Selection for the IJSO in Canada is supported by the National Junior Science Olympiad of Canada program (JSOC). Research has confirmed that fostering a strong and equitable STEM interest for women is developed through programs in which girls get involved in STEM while they are in middle school and the initial years of high school. This year 2 girls are on the Canadian IJSO team and JSOC is committed to a pattern of gender equality on the team.

The CCC, the CCO and JSOC offer enrichment resources for teachers across Canada and the CCO and JSOC are opening up training camps for students to learn laboratory experimental science in each province. However, none of this can happen without financial support and the strong network of volunteers who work tirelessly to provide resources.

Most other countries at IChO eagerly explore and optimized opportunities and selection processes for their students through Industry, Ministries of Education and Universities. Here in Canada, we are still finding our way more than 30 years after Canada first competed at IChO. There is lots of room for improvement and support for these top young scientists. We hope that Canadians across the country will rally in celebration and support of our finest pre-university scientists.