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Chemistry in Russia

The New Zealand at Moscow State University. From left to right: Frank Zhou (Macleans College), Scott Huang (Rangitoto College), Cindy Ou (Mt Roskill Grammar) and Keniel Yao (Macleans College)

The New Zealand team at Moscow State University. From left to right: Frank Zhou, Scott Huang , Cindy Ou and Keniel Yao (Macleans College)

It was the most memorable, most enjoyable, and most enlightening experience of my life: the 45th International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO).

The four of us, Cindy from Mt Roskill Grammar, Scott from Rangitoto College, and Keniel and myself from Macleans, departed Auckland just past midnight on the early morning of Thursday, July 11, 2013 on an eleven hour flight to Hong Kong. The three-day stop over was a great chance to relax, explore, catch up on some last minute studying, and get adjusted to changing time zones.

We passed through Russian immigration easily on July 14, the day before the Olympiad officially began, and were greeted at the airport by our lovely guide Taisiya, a chemistry student at the Moscow State University. We also discovered the Canadian team and their mascot Beaver the Moose while waiting for the bus – hence the name we later gave our two teams: “friends since day negative one”.

The next day was the first official day of IChO, the registration day at the university. We bumped into many different teams from across the globe before we had even settled down into our accommodation, including the Mongolian and Swiss teams.

The exams became less of a hanging worry with the next few days of sightseeing around Moscow. We had a lot of fun visiting the Red Square and the Kremlin.

Of special mention were the bus rides between our hotel and Moscow city proper, which often took two hours due to traffic jams. However, they were a good chance to sleep or socialise with our fellow “English bus” teams: such the USA, the UK, Ireland, Canada, India and Australia.

However, the sightseeing could not postpone the prospect of exams forever. The practical exam involved reasonably straightforward tasks, but had the terrible challenge of being rather long. Indeed, I was unable to finish the tasks within the five hours.

The theoretical exam proved to be even more challenging. Not only were the eight tasks highly obscure, requiring abstract outside-of-the-box thinking, again there was the problem of insufficient time. I was however happy with my effort on the graphene task, which I later discovered was awarded full marks.

The academic side of the experience was only one part of the Olympiad. Later excursions included zoo trips, water theme park trips, circus performances and paintball.

Along the way, we got to know some of the most amazing, inspiring and fun people from around the world. We discovered snippets of what life in another country and culture was like. We danced together and we partied together. The social side of the ‘competition’ was, for me, the most valuable part.

We all left Russia on July 24 with strong cases of post-Olympiad depression. While we, the New Zealand team, were, of course, delighted to have all received medals – with Keniel,  Cindy and Scott receiving bronze medals and myself receiving a silver – we felt sad that we were parting ways with our newfound friends.  It’s a scary thought that we might never see these people again.

IChO was an amazing, life-changing experience. The things I learnt and the people I met while in Russia will stay with me for a lifetime.

Article and photo by Frank Zhou.

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