Laboratory experiments can be stressful at the best of times. However, when a lab exam consists of three challenging tests, minimal direction, a five-hour time limit and 300 of the brightest young chemists on the planet as competition, the possibility of making a mistake nudges upwards. 

(L-R) Canadians Spencer Zhao, Scott Xiao, Alexander Cui and Jeff An received their 47th International Chemistry Olympiad medals at the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan last July. The 57,500-square-metre centre, which features an auditorium, gallery and museum, was designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and plays an integral role in the intellectual life of the city.

(L-R) Canadians Spencer Zhao, Scott Xiao, Alexander Cui and Jeff An received their 47th International Chemistry Olympiad medals at the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan last July. The 57,500-square-metre centre, which features an auditorium, gallery and museum, was designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and plays an integral role in the intellectual life of the city. Photo credit: Andy Dicks

Alexander Cui of Toronto — one of four Canadian students competing in the 47th International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) in Baku, Azerbaijan this past July — was nearly four-fifths of the way through the five-hour practical exam when he spilled his titration. “I had just put it in an ice bath and when I tried to pick it up it slipped through my hands,” says Cui, a Grade 12 student at University Toronto Schools (UTS). Cui still hadn’t started the third and final lab test. Recreating the titration would take another 25 minutes — time he didn’t have. Like a chef in a Michelin restaurant, Cui would have to manage two lab tests at once — redoing the titration — to have a hope of finishing. “I was switching tasks every 30 seconds,” the 17-year-old recalls. “I had to really multi-task to make sure I got everything done.” In the end — success. “My titration was quite accurate and I realized afterwards I had done quite well.” 

Cui’s chemical juggling act netted him a silver medal at the IChO, which was organized by the Baku branch of Lomonosov Moscow State University in the former Soviet republic, southeast of Europe by the Caspian Sea. He was not the only one with difficulties. Other Canadian team members faced technical problems with their vacuum distillation during the practical exam. Then, two days later, on July 25, fellow Canuck and UTS schoolmate Jeff An had a moment of panic during the five-hour theoretical exam. Four hours into the test, An, 17, was informed that writing in pencil wasn’t allowed; all the calculations and diagrams had to be in pen. “I freaked out,” says the Grade 12 student. “I decided that I would rather take a score that was less than I wanted than no score at all so I transcribed everything into pen. It was very painstaking and very annoying and took about half an hour,” says An, whose anxiety was eased somewhat by the chocolate given examinees to thwart flagging energy levels during the gruelling test.

Unfortunately, examiners weigh the theoretical slightly heavier than the practical, at 60 percent and 40 percent respectively, netting An a bronze medal. With better preparation and more thorough attention to instructions, he believes he could have clinched silver. A few hours after the exam was finished however, An realized that winning bronze, silver or gold wasn’t the objective of the 10-day event. It was about meeting new people, exploring a foreign land and pushing the boundaries of intellectual achievement. “The most memorable part of my experience was interacting with other students and their stories. They were really brilliant people who you would never meet in your daily life. So it was really a cool opportunity to broaden my horizons and realize that there is this calibre of intellect I can aspire to.” 

An’s and Cui’s teammates included Spencer Zhao, 17, another UTS student, and Scott Xiao, 17, of Burnaby, BC who was team captain (“Capt. Canada”) and is now a freshman at Harvard University. (Xiao was the highest placing silver medalist, missing out on gold by 0.1 percent. Zhao won bronze.) Mentors were Ken Hoffman, a teacher at Chestermere Lake Middle School in Chestermere, Alta. and Andrew Dicks, associate professor, teaching stream in the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemistry. The Azerbaijan experience marked the 30th anniversary of Canada sending a team to the IChO. Canada has always had a respectable showing, although Russia, the United States, China, Korea, Taiwan, Poland and Hungary tend to dominate, says Dicks. Canada’s medal tally for the past three decades includes eight gold, 29 silver and 53 bronze.

In Azerbaijan, China came out on top with an unprecedented four gold medals. The medals are awarded based upon the following criteria: the top 10 percent of students receive gold, the next 20 percent silver and the following 30 percent bronze. The other 40 percent receives nothing. 

The chemistry Olympiad fosters international relations and friendship as well as academic achievement. The 300 competitors enjoyed the camaraderie of city tours, studying together­ and the time-honoured tradition of stealing each other’s mascot, including the Canadian team’s moose.

The chemistry Olympiad fosters international relations and friendship as well as academic achievement. The 300 competitors enjoyed the camaraderie of city tours, studying together­ and the time-honoured tradition of stealing each other’s mascot, including the Canadian team’s moose. Photo credit: Alexander Cui, Zahra Aliyeua 

The Olympiad has its roots in Eastern Europe, so nations like Hungary and Poland, where high school chemistry education is more rigorous than in North America, tend to do well year after year despite a smaller pool of students to select from, Dicks says. This raises several questions. First, what is the value for Canada in sending high school kids and their mentors to the annual event? Costs are partly covered by the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC), which contributes $16,000 towards the IChO entry fee, visas and airfare for the team. The host country covers hotel and food for participants from 75 nations at the $2-million event. (Canada will not be attending this year’s IChO event in Karachi, Pakistan due to security concerns.)

Second, does it raise the bar for chemistry education across the country? Jennifer Pitt-Lainsbury, a chemistry instructor at UTS and a member of the CIC’s Chemical Education Fund Board of Directors says that attending an Olympiad gives Canada international cachet. “It’s really an inspiration and a positive investment for all Canadians,” says Pitt-Lainsbury, who won the CIC Beaumier Award for High School/CÉGEP Chemistry Teachers in 2014.

But schools like UTS don’t actually prepare students for the rigours of an IChO event, which challenges students with advanced concepts that are usually introduced in third-year university. Although high schools help lay a strong theoretical and practical foundation, the real training comes under the direction of the Canadian Chemistry Olympiad (CCO), which selects the country’s top 10 to 15 students following provincial chemistry exams for a week-long national selection camp, held in late May or early June. The top four students go on to represent Canada at the IChO. On an individual level, says Zhao, the experience allows students who are “passionate about chemistry to set goals and aim high.” It’s not enough to be bright; team members must also be dedicated, spending up to six hours a day studying and working on chemistry problems together for the six weeks leading up to the IChO following national camp. 

As team captain, Xiao was instrumental in helping his fellow teammates. Early in the year, IChO organizers send out 35 questions designed to help prepare competitors for the event. Often, the questions reference the chemistry that dominates in the host nation. Since Azerbijan’s economy is oil-based, numerous questions referenced the petroleum industry. “I spearheaded the training and preparation and would scout out resources for the others and put them on Google Drive so we could practice problems,” says Xiao. “We made sure we were completely familiar with the preparatory questions.” 

In the past several years, the Canadian Olympiad team has tended to be dominated by students from the Toronto and Vancouver areas. Dicks explains that high school curricula, being a provincial responsibility, tend to vary in standards from coast to coast, a factor in the current dominance by British Columbia and Ontario. Before this, however, Alberta and Quebec students often carried the flag for Canada. It’s also a bit of a statistical numbers game, Dicks adds. BC’s Lower Mainland, where Xiao’s hometown of Burnaby is located, is densely populated, as is the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where UTS is based.

Pitt-Lainsbury says that achieving a place on the Olympiad team is often nurtured by the passion and dedication of high school chemistry teachers, as well as provincial pedagogy. UTS, for example, cultivates advanced laboratory skills by pushing risk-taking, critical thinking and “true inquiry,” says Pitt-Lainsbury. As an example, she will set a task in her chemistry class but expect students to come up with the laboratory procedure needed to achieve it. “I’ll ask them to design a lab that will produce 24 millilitres of hydrogen. That is a much harder question than measure the amount of hydrogen produced by combining this and this,” says Pitt-Lainsbury.

It isn’t just regional representation that is uneven at the Olympiad — gender balance tends to be as well, says Dicks. “I would like to see more females involved,” he says, noting that the typical number of young women at the IChO usually hovers around 20 percent. Canada’s all-male IChO team was very unusual, he adds, as there is usually female representation. In 2014, Sabrina Ge of UTS was an IChO team member while two girls (including Ge) went to the Russian IChO in 2013, where there were only 50 females out of the 300 competitors. 
 At the sporting Olympics, the slogan “Citius, Altius Fortius” refers to the drive to achieve individual excellence. However, the Games are also meant to nurture friendship and respect among nations. This, too, is a key objective of the IChO. Xiao says that an “unofficial rule” of competition is that you limit studying upon arrival in the host country, otherwise “you lose the whole experience.” In Azerbaijan, students were taken on bus tours of Baku, a remarkable city that blends the ancient with modernity. Sights include the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In another part of Baku is the Heydar Aliyev Center. Designed by architect Zaha Hadid, the centre has inspired confectionary comparisons: whorls of whipped cream buffeted into a mountain range of peaks cascading downwards to form a zig-zagging landscape. (Heydar Aliyev was the site of the IChO medal presentation.) 

Xiao says that the other students, when they weren’t enjoying tours of the city, engaged in various games with one another. (To prevent cheating, mentors were moved to a different location and all the students’ electronic devices confiscated, so the teens created their own entertainment.) Diversions included a party game called Mafia that tests strategy and the ability to detect a fraud by modelling a conflict between an informed minority (the mafia) and an uninformed majority (the innocents). The most hotly contested distraction was a venerable Olympiad tradition involving the theft of team mascots. The object is to steal each other’s mascots through subterfuge and trickery, returning them on the last day. Canada’s mascot: a stuffed moose named Beaver who has attended several Olympiads, was apprehended by the Australian team.

Altogether, the social, cultural and academic activities created lasting memories for the Canadian team, says mentor Ken Hoffman. “Attending an Olympiad — and doing well — shows a student what they are capable of outside their cloistered school community,” he says. “The Olympiad opens up wider possibilities for students. It awakens them to the greatness to affect change that they possess.” 

The students, indeed, have set high academic goals. Xiao plans to pursue drug development and a PhD or medical degree while Cui wants to combine his love of the humanities with science. An hopes to be accepted into either Harvard of Cambridge universities for post-secondary studies while Zhao is focused on biochemical engineering to help solve global challenges in sustainability. All four will always remember their time together in Azerbaijan. Says Zhao, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”