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August 14, 2012 > Local student attains gold medal at International Biology Olympiad

Local student attains gold medal at International Biology Olympiad

By Miriam G. Mazliach

TCV interviewed Raymond Liu, a senior at Fremont's Mission San Jose High School, about his participation in the International Biology Olympiad (IBO). Liu finished in third place at this world competition, held July 8 - 15 in Singapore.

TCV: When did you first become interested in Biology?

Liu: Ever since I was little; many of my family members were doctors and I lived right next to a hospital. At first, it started out as only a medical interest. In elementary school I got into natural world-type things - documentaries on animals and biomes, things like that. Now, I'm into molecular biology and biochemistry, so I've pretty much run the gamut.

TCV: How did your team apply for the IBO?

Liu: First there's an Open Exam that any school in the US can opt to administer to its students; that test is free for anyone to take; about 11,000 students take that per year. The top 500 or so students take a semifinal exam which is also administered on campus. Then the top 20 from that exam go to a two-week training camp at Purdue University, where they learn a lot of practical techniques in various biological disciplines. After that, there is a very grueling, two-day National exam that consists of a theoretical paper and practical lab work. The top four move on to the IBO.

TCV: Who are the other US team members?

Liu: They are Nikhil Buduma from Bellarmine College Prep, Jerry Ding from the Charter School of Wilmington in Delaware, and Kevin Ma from East Brunswick High School in New Jersey.

TCV: You finished in third place; how did your teammates place?

Liu: Kevin placed 21st, Nikhil placed 17th, and Jerry placed 2nd (all considered gold medalists). As a team, our combined score was a difference of two points from Singapore who took the unofficial team first place.

TCV: What was included in the competition?

Liu: The practical portion of the test is divided into four sections, each with a specific focus (i.e. molecular biology, plant biology, etc.); competitors rotate throughout the day. Some tasks such as running electrophoresis gels and looking at plant stems were pretty standard but others were totally off the wall such as dissecting seeds and titrating an amino acid.

The National final exam is designed to be similar to IBO tests. The US has one of the best preparatory programs for IBO in the world; the National exam is arguably harder than the IBO exam although IBO was anything but easy (the top raw score was approximately 65 percent). I feel our team was ready for the competition.

And, there are some surprises too; the seed dissection section mentioned earlier caught our whole team off guard, but I managed to do pretty well. Conversely, I scored only 10 percent on one section about clam anatomy that I thought was a cakewalk. So you have to learn to be comfortable with the unexpected.

TCV: How do you feel about this accomplishment?

Liu: It's a funny story; the Master of Ceremonies of the event wasn't keeping track of numerical ranks during the awards ceremony. He had been introducing gold medalists for a while, so Jerry and I knew we did pretty well; but suddenly my name was called and everyone was standing up and screaming and I had no idea why. So I made my way to center stage, actually waited for Jerry to also get called up, and was basically back to my seat before I realized I was third.

It's obviously an honor and "a dream come true" to have done so well, but there's only about a 4.5 percent difference between the first place score and the bottom gold medalist's score. I think IBO does a good job in honoring the top 25 spots with gold medals, because when the competition is this close, luck is definitely a big factor.

I also have the USA Biology Olympiad (USABO) program to thank for providing such comprehensive preparation for us; this experience is definitely going to influence my future relationship with the program even long after I graduate from high school [June 2013].

TCV: Does your team have a Coach?

Liu: The program has two organizers, Kathy Frame and Clark Gedney, who accompanied us to Singapore. The former, works with CEE (Center for Excellence in Education), the organization that funds the USABO, and the latter is a faculty member at Purdue. Every day of our training camp we received lectures and labs by different Purdue faculty members specializing in different disciplines of biology. We also have counselors, former USABO alums, who returned to work with us.

TCV: Did you stay in Singapore for awhile following the competition?

Liu: In fact, I did stay behind with my parents to visit; my parents did a lot of their graduate education there. We found their old research labs and my old childcare center and our former apartment - that kind of thing; a very nice trip down memory lane.

TCV: What are your college or future career plans?

Liu: That is an open question at this time. There's no doubt I will end up majoring in biology wherever I go for college. I used to be passionate about medicine, and I haven't thrown that option out yet, but there are other fields of interest. There's still some time to think about that.

TCV: Any other comments?

Liu: I was very pleasantly surprised with the fraternal spirit of the competitors at IBO. At camp at Purdue, you definitely make friends but there's an atmosphere of "everybody is looking to win." At IBO, hardly anyone is talking about biology; we talked about each others' countries, languages and exchanged trinkets. Our team really hit it off with Vietnam even though we spoke zero Vietnamese and they spoke maybe 10 words of English. I think IBO exemplifies the spirit of science as universal, unbounded by political boundaries.

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