Keeping his ion the prize

Senior Alan Song makes school history through admission into the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad Study Camp

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Robin Polk, ACS Staff

Senior Alan Song (fourth from the left in the back row) poses for a picture with his peers at the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad Study Camp. His stay included lectures, labs and problem-solving events guided by head mentor Joseph Houck, a chemistry professor at Penn State University. “We did a bit too many labs, but despite the challenge and the immense back pain I got from working all day, it was a great experience. I got to meet these incredibly hardworking and talented students and it left me feeling inspired,” Song said.

Entranced in an internet rabbit hole, 10-year-old Alan Song perused the pages of Wikipedia, exploring atomic orbitals, a chemistry topic he had recently discovered. Little did he know that seven years later, he would make West High history by attending the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO) Study Camp, an honor only 20 students in the nation can attain each year. 

“I have always been interested in chemistry, but I started studying seriously in ninth grade when my parents signed me up for it,” Song said. “My parents initially pressured me into the local exam after hearing about it from a group chat, but ultimately it was my longtime interest in chemistry that kept me going.”

While Song enrolled in the qualifying exam his freshman year, it was canceled due to COVID-19. However, come sophomore year, Song took the test and ranked in the top 150. Then, in his junior year, Song earned a gold medal, ranking top 20 out of the 1000 students that took the USNCO. This earned him admission to the selective USNCO Study Camp and made him the first student in school history to do so. 

The camp provided students with lab experience they may not typically obtain in schools. This included experimenting with carcinogens and producing industrial weed killers and food flavorings. (Margaret Thatcher, ACS Staff)

“I never stopped fearing the test environment. I feared it a lot. It is meant to be difficult. After the test, I was anxious and demoralized because I struggled during the USNCO lab portion. I thought I did so badly, but [it] turns out everyone else must have struggled too because I ended up at the camp,” Song said. “During the actual test, I didn’t worry about the ranking, scores or the hours of hard work that might have been wasted. Instead, I was just focused on the task at hand. It’s going to be hard, that is the entire point, but you should not get discouraged.”

The camp brought together 20 students all over the nation in a highly-subsidized stay at the University of Maryland, June 5-8.

“Some schools send two or three students yearly to compete in these selective study camps. They almost have an ‘olympiad culture’ where lowerclassmen can look up to their uppers and follow a carved path to these particularly selective events. It gets a little overwhelming for people like me who are the first from their schools and aren’t surrounded by that sort of environment,” Song said.

The camp aimed to determine the six students who would compose the national team and later compete against other countries in the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO). 

“I didn’t get to the camp just because I was interested or ‘talented,’ I had to work hard for it. Even when I got there, those two weeks were rigorous. I didn’t have the time to reflect on my journey or appreciate myself. We were being tested to prove ourselves, and all the tests were long, annoying and too hard for me to solve properly. It was more fun to be around the people at the camp,” Song said.

Qualifying for the camp also granted students the opportunity to learn from high-level mentors, such as two past camp participants from MIT and faculty members of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry from the University of Maryland.

Many problems at the camp focused on complex undergraduate-level topics such as regioselectivity on massive polycyclic compounds and using reagents. (Joseph Houck)

“There was a professor that lectured on computational chemistry. During the lecture, he logged in to a supercomputer very casually and we were all like ‘oh wow.’ He was a very cool dude overall, and now I am inspired to pursue computational chemistry in college,” Song said. “This other guy was lecturing on thermodynamics and basically derived every equation known to man. We all had our brains explode.”

Although Song did not qualify for the team, he and his 19 other peers formed a group chat to keep in touch.

“I made friends with everyone, most of whom are now at MIT. These were incredibly smart and kind people who were so much better at chemistry than me, it made me feel dumb. But it was a feeling of demotivation along with joy. It’s fun to be around smart people, to be challenged. It shows you that there is no limit to [achievement], which is inspirational,” Song said. 

Song aims to again participate in the olympiad with his peers at Chem Club, a club he co-founded with senior Noah Schell at West High. 

“I would say to those out there to just give olympiads a try. Learning can be very fun, but the connections are what makes it all even more worth it — worth not only the laborious tests but also having to share three bathrooms between 26 people at the camp,” Song said. “The environment is competitive, but everyone is nice and collaborative; that is what I appreciate the most.”