Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bringing home the gold

Students represent the U.S. in international biology competition

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Two Montgomery County students represented the United States at the International Biology Olympiad in Mumbai, India July 13-20.

Jonathan Liang of North Potomac and Jonathan Gootenberg of Rockville both earned gold medals at the competition, which involves a practical and written exam on various biology topics.

High school students from 55 nations attended the competition and each national team is comprised of four students. All four students who represented the United States earned gold medals, finishing in the top 10 percent of competitors.

‘‘It was incredibly stressful, but after the exams the stress blew off and it was exhilarating,” said Liang, a rising senior at Thomas Wootton High School. ‘‘That’s when we had a party. All the other students there were really cool and everyone got along really well.”

Liang placed third in the eight-day competition and Gootenberg placed 21st. David Huang of Hockessin, Del., placed 17th and Seungsoo Kim of Vancouver, Wash., placed 19th. It is not uncommon for the United States to receive four gold medals, Liang said.

‘‘As the American team we did have a lot of pressure from the precedent set by the past years,” said Gootenberg, a rising senior at Montgomery Blair High School. ‘‘Last year they got all golds and we were not expecting to get all golds.”

The selection process for the Olympiad began in February when high school students across the country took the United States Biology Olympiad open exam. The top 600 or so are selected as semifinalists and take another exam, Liang said. The top 20 on that exam are finalists and attend a two-week study camp at George Mason University. At the end of the camp, an exam is given and the top four are selected to represent the United States at the international competition.

At the international competition, there is a practical exam and a theoretical, or written, portion. During the practical exam, competitors must do a variety of tasks in plant anatomy and physiology, molecular biology, animal anatomy and physiology, and animal behavior.

‘‘Biology is a very broad subject,” Liang said. ‘‘There was just so much to study, and we have only a limited time to prepare.”

Though the competition is focused on science, Gootenberg said much of the time was devoted to getting to know other people and cultures.