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Local student attains gold medal at International Biology Olympiad

By Miriam G. Mazliach

August 14, 2012

TCV interviewed Raymond Liu, a rising senior at Fremontís Mission San Jose High School, about his participation in the International Biology Olympiad (IBO). Liu finished in 3rd place at this world competition, held July 8 Ė 15 in Singapore.

TCV: When did you first become interested in Biology?

Liu: Ever since I was little, as 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, Iím very into molecular biology and biochemistry, so Iíve pretty much run the gamut, as far as biological sub-disciplines go.

TCV: How did you or your team apply for the IBO and how was the team selected? What was the actual process leading up to participating in the International Biology Olympiad?

Liu: First thereís an Open Exam that any school in the US can opt to administer to its students; that test is free for anyone to take, and 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-long 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 a bunch of practical lab work. The top four from that go onto 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: Besides your 3rd place finish in the International event, 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 two points away from Singapore, who took the unofficial team 1st place.

TCV: What did the competition include in relation to types of questions or tasks you had to do? Did you find the competition to be challenging or difficult?

Liu: The practical portion of the test is divided into four sections, each with a specific focus (for example, molecular biology or plant biology), and the competitors rotate through the rooms throughout the day. Some things, like running electrophoresis gels and looking at plant stems, were pretty standard. There were some that were totally off the wall, like one section that was all about dissecting seeds and another one where you titrate an amino acid.

The National final exam is designed to be very similar in setup to the IBO tests. The US has one of the best prep programs for IBO in the world; the National exam is arguably harder than the IBO exam. Not to say that IBO was anywhere close to being easy, (the top scorer had a raw score of approximately 65 percent), but I feel we were all ready for what was coming.

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

TCV: Please comment on your reaction to placing 3rd in the world. How do you feel about that accomplishment?

Liu: Itís a funny story, as the Master of Ceremonies at the event wasnít keeping track of numerical ranks during the awards ceremony. He had been sounding off 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.

Itís obviously an honor and ďa dream come trueĒ to have done so well, but I do have to mention that thereís only about a 4.5 percent difference between the 1st place score and the bottom gold medalistís score. I think IBO does a good job in honoring the top 25 spots with gold medals, because when the competition is this hair-splittingly close, simple luck definitely plays a big factor.

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

TCV: Does your team have a Coach? If so, who?

Liu: The program has two organizers, Kathy Frame and Clark Gedney, who accompany 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 weíre given lectures and labs by different Purdue faculty members specializing in different disciplines of biology. We also have counselors, former USABO alums, who return and work with us more closely. So, I canít say we have a single coach, but weíre definitely very well taken care of.

TCV: Are you still in Singapore or touring around?

Liu: In fact, I did stay behind with my parents, who had flown over, because I have a history with Singapore; 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 Ė that kind of thing; a very nice trip down memory lane.

TCV: What are your college or future career plans?

Liu: Thereís no doubt I will end up majoring in biology wherever I go for college. Where I go after that is an open question for me, and I think my time as an undergrad will probably help make that decision. I used to be very passionate for medicine, and I havenít thrown that option out yet; but, there are other fields, like research, pharmaceuticals or even teaching that have opened up as new possibilities for me. I figure thereís still some time to think about that, so Iím not too concerned yet with an exact career plan.

TCV: Anything else you would like to mention?

Liu: Yes, I would like to say that I was very pleasantly surprised with how fraternal the spirit of the competitors is at IBO. Back at camp in Purdue, you definitely make friends, but thereís this overall feeling in the atmosphere of ďeverybody is looking to winĒ that keeps your head in the game, so to speak. At IBO hardly anyone is talking about biology; we talk about what each othersí countries are like, teach each other new languages, or exchange little trinkets. Our team really hit it off with Vietnam even though we spoke zero Vietnamese and they spoke maybe 10 words of English. Many of the team guides and organizers, at least six or seven, were IBO alums, which is crazy considering that Singapore hasnít been in this competition for that long. I think IBO exemplifies the spirit of science being universal, unbounded by political boundaries. IBO really keeps people together, and I think thatís the most important.

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