Competing in Chemistry

CH4 + O2 CO2 + H2O. Some people might stare at this equation, puzzling over what the letters, numbers, and arrows could possibly mean. A few might identify it as a reaction used in chemistry, but not know what’s being reacted or produced. Others still might immediately recognize it as the chemical equation for the combustion reaction of methane. Although chemistry might not be everyone’s cup of tea, for senior Phoenix Wu, chemistry has become a passion of his; some may even say a way of life.

In  elementary school, Wu was fascinated by all the cool reactions that people could create in a chemistry lab. But it wasn’t until junior high that his interest for chemistry began to take root.

“When I was in middle school, I did Science Olympiad,” Wu said. “I think that was my first foray into actually trying to learn chemistry as something I was interested in, and I just continued that through high school.”

Even though chemistry is only a small chunk of the huge scientific field, Wu favors it over biology and physics, finding it as the perfect balance in between the two.

“Chemistry is kind of unique in that you actually get to do really fun practicals,” Wu said. “In biology, you can dissect stuff and all that, but in chemistry you get to do a huge range of cool reactions, [which is] a lot more hands-on in my opinion.”

Wu’s passion and interest in chemistry is what led him to decide to try out for the US National Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO) team. Once selected, the four high school aged team members would go on to compete in the International Chemistry Olympiad, which was hosted by Tianjin, China over Zoom. After taking multiple exams, Wu made it to the finals, which occurred after completing a two week study camp at the University of Maryland.

“[At the camp] we spent a ton of time in the lab – three to four hours every day, and it was so tiring,” Wu said. “I met some incredibly smart people from across the country. [Then after the camp] they had three really long exams. And through that they picked the four people.”

Being one of the four to get picked, Wu became an official member of the USNCO 2022 team. In July, after all the months of practice and training, the moment Wu had been preparing for had finally come.

“Unfortunately [because of] COVID, [the competition] was virtual, so instead of getting to go to China, we had to do it all virtually at Washington D.C., which was still fun. On the day of the competition – it was just the written exam because you can’t really standardize the practical across 100-something countries – I showed up, ate breakfast and was super nervous. [I] took the five hour exam and then relaxed.”

When the results of the Olympiad were released on July 19, Wu was announced to have won a silver medal, meaning that he was in the top 13 to 22 percent out of all the students around the world who had taken the exam. Although Wu might have taken home a silver medal, he also left Washington D.C. with new friends and more knowledge in chemistry then he could have ever dreamed of.

“I saw so many people who had such breadth of knowledge, so much that they knew that I didn’t know,” Wu said. “The amount of material we learned there, the amount of new stuff, It’s still like I’ve just seen a tiny aspect of a giant ocean of knowledge. It kind of motivated me to keep going, and it’s nice to know how much progress I’ve made, but [competing in the Olympiad] also gave me a glimpse at how much progress I’ve yet to make.”