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It’s All Relative: Inside The U.S. Chemistry Olympiad Study Camp

“How do we look to someone who’s normal?” Ari Frankel, a high school senior from Buffalo Grove, Ill., asked me this morning, just hours before taking a four-hour final exam in chemistry.

I hesitated, not quite sure how to respond.

“Do you think we’re insane?” he pressed. “I mean, anyone who would spend two weeks studying chemistry nonstop has to seem insane to someone on the outside.”

Ari, who will attend MIT in the fall, is among the 20 high school students who have been selected through a rigorous national exam to participate in the two-week U.S. Chemistry Olympiad Study Camp, held every year at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The camp is organized by the American Chemical Society.

I’ll admit, these students have a truly insane schedule. They wake up every day around 6 AM, eat breakfast together in the dormitory dining hall, then shuffle into a classroom for four hours of lecture, followed by lunch, then four hours of lab. After dinner, they buckle down for a night of studying (that’s if they’re not playing cards or hanging out in each other’s rooms).

Their final score is based on their lab work and three exams, which cover organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, physical chemistry, and inorganic chemistry (remember, these are high school students, albeit very smart ones).

The four top scorers will go on to represent the U.S. in the International Chemistry Olympiad in Budapest this July.

“I’ve never seen it so close,” said head mentor Kara Pezzi, who teaches at Appleton East High School in Wisconsin. “They know the material really well.”

These overachieving kids would make any chemist proud. While posing for a group photo yesterday afternoon, one of the students shouted “Diels Alder,” and they all shifted into configuration and laughed like goofy teenagers.

Occasionally, they will downplay their brilliance.

Moments before the class received their final exam, Jonathan Lee, who is from Northridge, Calif., and will attend Harvard in the fall, called out: “Who wants to flunk this exam?”

J. L. Kiappes, the spirited peer mentor who won a silver medal in Kiel, Germany, in 2004, smiled and said, “There are no failures, only successes.”

To that, Jonathan responded: “Okay, who wants to relatively flunk this exam?”

Jonathan Lee, of Northridge, Calif., reads his burette during an experiment.

Some students try to squeeze in a few Nintendo DS games between studying. From left to right: Justin Koh of Bakersfield, Calif.; Nathan Benjamin of West Lafayette, Ind.; Andrew Liu of Chesterfield, Mo.; Jonathan Lee of Northridge, Calif.; and Simon Ye of Andover, Mass.

A group of guys gathers for a game of cards. Facing the camera from left to right are Philip Micz of Mililani, Hawaii; Andrew Allman of York, Pa; and Ari Frankel of Buffalo Grove, Ill.

Justin Koh of Bakersfield, Calif., who won a silver medal last year in Moscow, is back again to try for the gold.

After six hours of lecture, chemist Ron Furstenau (center) of the U.S. Air Force Academy treats the students to a chemistry magic show. To Furstenau’s left is Philip Mocz of Mililani, Hawaii; to his right is Aditya Kalluri of North Olmsted, Ohio.

Girls make up 20% of this year’s class. From left to right are Anna Chithelen of Scarsdale, N.Y.; Young Xu of Bellaire, Texas; Liz Peng of Williamsville, N.Y.; Yuxin Xie of East Brunswick, N.J.; and Jenny Lu of Southbury, Conn.

Alex Chang, from San Diego, plays some ball to relax before studying for the final exam.

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