Beyond Basic Biology

Beyond Basic Biology

Vienna organization sponsors high-school students to compete in an international Biology Olympiad

For Michael Xiang, avoiding biology is impossible. The growth of trees and flowers, the opening of buds to blossoms, the human body itself — all inspire him to study and learn more about the wonders surrounding him.

"It's so ever-present in the world around you," said Xiang, who hails from Bridgewater, N.J., and now attends the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's something mysterious, and yet there's a very strong connection."

That strong interest in biology helped fuel Xiang as he participated as one of four U.S. citizens in an international Biology Olympiad last July. The organization that sponsored them was a Vienna-based educational nonprofit whose goal is to nurture excellence among students of science technology both nationally and abroad.

The Center for Excellence in Education in Vienna continues its participation with the USA Biology Olympiad (USABO) this May, as it prepares to host 20 high-school student finalists from across the nation for a second annual intensive crash course in biology at George Mason University later this month.

"The mission of the Center is to nurture careers in science and technology," said Suraiya Farukhi, vice president of public affairs for the Center for Excellence in Education. "In keeping with the mission of the Center, the USABO was one of the things that was very significant for the Center to do."

In order to meet demands for qualified workers in the biology and technology fields, the Center inaugurated the USABO last spring. It tests students on their knowledge in all areas of biology, from physiology to ecology to molecular biology.

Four finalists, including Xiang, were selected from the USABO to compete in the International Biology Olympiad last June.

Sample questions at the national level included knowing that reverse transcriptase is the enzyme that HIV uses to convert RNA to DNA, and that in cardiac muscle, calcium ions can move freely between adjacent cells through gap junctions.

"It is for a competitive edge in the community of nations. A more advanced democracy only thrives in a more advanced economic milieu," said Joann DiGennaro, Center president and co-founder, explaining the Center's involvement in the Olympiad.

THE 20 STUDENTS who descended on George Mason University last year were selected from among approximately 500 semifinalists nationwide. The semifinalists themselves were among the roughly 5,000 high-school students who took an open exam nationwide.

All students were tested on the following subjects: molecular and cellular biology, biochemistry, animal physiology, plant physiology, and genetics and evolution.

The Center recently announced its semifinalist list for this year's competition in early March. The list included six students from Oakton High School, as well as dozens of students from Alexandria's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

The students from Oakton were Cailin Cutler, Teresa Daniels, Katherine Ku, Gillian Paul, Linda Romano and Christopher Ore.

From those 500 semifinalists, 20 will be selected to go to George Mason University for two weeks, all expenses paid, to compete for a spot on the team representing the United States at the international Olympiad. They will have classes during the day, practicals in the afternoon, and lectures in the evening.

"They realize that what they may know about biology is not necessarily required for being successful at the International Olympiad," said Alan Christensen, academic director for the two-week session at George Mason, and associate chair of molecular and microbiology at the university. Both he and assistant director Bill Stuart oversee the training camp instruction and logistics.

The students will then take another qualifying exam, with the top four earning a spot on the U.S. team. Members of last year's team won two bronze medals and two silver medals when they went to the international competition in Belarus. This year's finalists will journey to Australia.

"It's a lot of fun, and it's a great opportunity to learn more about the subject, and have a peer group and meet with them," said Kay Aull of Fairfax, another USA team member from last year, who is also a finalist in this year's USABO competition. Kay attends Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and plans to enter MIT this fall. "It's a good opportunity for networking with other biologists and learning about the field."

Xiang agreed. "Studying for everything, that greatly increased my knowledge of biology," he said. "Just going to internationals was an amazing experience. Meeting like-minded people from across the nation, that was really interesting."

THE FOUR FINALISTS on last year's team all hope the upcoming U.S. team earns gold medals at the international competition, which includes teams from over 40 countries. But they also hope the team can learn from its comrades worldwide, whether through learning card games from different countries or interacting with peers with like-minded interests.

"That competition was really fun," said Victor Li, a U.S. team member, from Cutertino, Calif., now attending Stanford. "The chance to meet all these different kinds of people. The problems were challenging and really made you think about the material in a greater level."

"I think to some extent [the Olympiad] gives students confidence that they can handle biology. ... Aside from that, the subject matter was very valuable," Li said.