How Participating in Competitions Leads to Studying Chemistry
The competitive nature of, for example, the International Science Olympiad sometimes overshadows that there is so much more to them than that: They are a fun way to get to know yourself a little better through exploring your talents and interests. This knowledge will inevitably help you in one way or another to answer the one big question that arises when you get closer to graduating school: What am I going to do with my life? Or, at least, for the next five years or so? Furthermore, you will gain skills that will probably be useful regardless of what you choose to study.
A Career in Chemistry?
Towards the end of my time at school, I developed an interest in chemistry. In a way this took me by surprise, as I had never considered science as a career when I was younger. This is why, at first, I was rather unsure of whether I could imagine studying chemistry at university. Would I eventually grow tired of chemistry when dealing with it all day, every day? What about the practical work in the lab? Would it be fun to carry out and eventually design experiments? All these and more were questions that I had at the time, and I believe I was not the only one.
So how could I find out whether chemistry was the right choice for me? There are many guides and resources to help one with the decision. I talked to many university students and did research on the Internet and in magazines. As helpful as all of this information was, I still could not answer whether chemistry was what I, personally, wanted to study and whether I was even able to.
So what could I do to gain some firsthand experience? I was not looking for work experience, but for a way to further engage with the subject itself, in a flexible way timewise, and without any pressure. The answer was science competitions.
It is often assumed that pupils who engage in activities like science competitions are already determined to pursue a career in their particular field, in which they are usually perceived to be extraordinarily talented. And indeed, from my experience, this is the case more often than not. However, although it is great to see that many pupils have decided on what to do with their future, most have not. Taking part in science competitions is a great way to find out. Sadly, many pupils do not recognize this potential, therefore I hope to promote this idea by sharing my experience.
The International Chemistry Olympiad is a competition that takes part in several stages and eventually leads to a delegation of each country being sent to the international, final round. In Germany, the first stage is to complete a set of exercises at home. This first stage is fairly easy, and if more than half of your answers are correct, you advance to the next round with more difficult tasks, which you again complete at home. You may use books or the Internet to help you, and you really need to since the tasks of the second round are rather difficult. It is almost impossible to complete all of them. Encompassing a wide range of topics from organic synthesis to spectrometry, it takes quite some time and effort to succeed. This is, however, time well spent; I felt that there was hardly a better way to challenge my enthusiasm. If I could work on chemistry-related tasks for hours at a time and still enjoy it, I reasoned, I was likely to commit to studying the subject at university in a similar way. After one semester of studying, I found this to be largely true.
The twenty pupils with the best scores in the second round of the International Chemistry Olympiad in my region were invited by Bayer to spend a few days at their headquarters in Leverkusen to train for further rounds, and also to have fun together as a reward for our hard work. This was as far as I got, and I enjoyed the experience very much. In the third and fourth rounds the participants take part in a seminar, during which tests are completed to decide upon the finalists, training for further advancement takes place, and which also includes a program to gain some insight into the chemical industry.
For me, the Olympiad was especially valuable in terms of deciding whether I wanted to study chemistry at university and what this would be like. It required intense studies and familiarizing oneself with topics never spoken about in school, and working on seemingly unsolvable tasks. All these skills are required at university on a daily basis.
In contrast, the Jugend forscht (“youth research”) competition focuses on a more practical approach to science. It is divided into two age groups and further into subject groups such as physics, biology, and chemistry. The participants present their project to a jury that consists of people who work in a similar field. Again, the competition starts at a regional level and advances gradually towards a national competition. For my project, I developed a glue based on sunflower oil. Even though I did not progress very far in the competition, I gathered some valuable experiences. First, I had to do theoretical research and design experiments based on my findings. Doing so required some creativity and improvisation, for the school’s equipment was limited and as a pupil I was not allowed to use every substance I would have liked to use. Before I even got close to synthesizing anything slightly reminiscent of a glue, I failed many times. Nevertheless, I kept going, doing further research, eliminating mistakes, improving my experiments, until I was finally able to glue wooden as well as metal sticks together. All this taught me patience and determination – valuable skills, regardless of what one might choose to do in the future.
After my Abitur (the German equivalent to A-levels), I decided to study chemistry at university. Participating in these two competitions helped me a lot in my decision-making process. Not only had I experienced hard work and tested my determination, but in workshops and seminars of the International Chemistry Olympiad (these are open to anyone who makes it to the second round), I also gained firsthand information on what a career in this particular field might be like. Furthermore, I got to know many likeminded people, with some of whom I am still in touch.
At university I soon realized that the knowledge I had gained through researching and working for the competitions was very useful, as it coincided with the university curriculum in many aspects. The Chemistry Olympiad in particular helped me gain some basic knowledge of certain topics that turned out to be very useful. Since I had already familiarized myself with the molecular orbital (MO) theory, it was a lot easier to understand when it was discussed in depth at university. In organic chemistry I read about many reaction meachanisms like the Diels–Alder reaction, which are now being put into further context.
Overall, I would recommend the experience to anyone who is interested in the subject of chemistry but is still unsure whether they are good at it and whether they are truly determined to study and work in the field of chemistry. In any case, there is much to be gained from the experience and, perhaps surprisingly, the greatest gains are not even subject-specific – among them determination, endurance, and creativity.
Marabel Riesmeier studies chemistry at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany. During her time at school, she has participated in several science competitions.