World-class performance: Westport student strikes gold in chemistry competition
In cerebral competition, Alex Siegenfeld of Westport is the only state resident to bring home the gold from the International Chemistry Olympiad in the competition's four-plus decade history. The 17-year-old was one of four high school students, all from the East Coast, to represent the United States in the 42nd International Chemistry Olympiad, held last month in Tokyo, Japan. They were chosen from an original pool of more than 11,000 high school students nationwide.
The U.S. team competed successfully against approximately 250 students from 65 countries, according to Rachael Bishop, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, which sponsors the team from America each year.
Siegenfeld and Colin Lu, of Vestal, N.Y., both won gold medals. Richard Li, of Clarksville, Md., won silver, and Utsarga Sikder, of Monmouth Junction, N.J., took home a bronze. There were 32 gold medals awarded at the competition. The medals were presented to winners in ceremonies at Waseda University. The last time the U.S. won two gold medals in the same year was 2002, Bishop said.
Siegenfeld, who is working at Yale University this summer on a project to repair a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, downplayed the significance of being the first from Connecticut to win a gold in the international academic event, preferring to focus instead on the team effort. "I did feel really honored to be representing the U.S. in this competition," he said.
"He is very humble and modest. He doesn't like to draw too much attention to himself, but he should be very proud of his accomplishments ... He is quite an extraordinary kid," said Sarah Leite, Siegenfeld's Advanced Placement chemistry teacher at Hopkins School in New Haven, where he will be a senior this year.
"Alex is a highly self-motivated and determined student who spends a great deal of time outside of class to master the material and delve further into the subject," said Leite, adding that Siegenfeld's fifth place finish, or first alternate, last year may have provided him with extra motivation to improve this year.
"If it weren't for her excellent teaching and dedication I never would have had these opportunities," Siegenfeld said of his two consecutive experiences with the chemistry competition.
Siegenfeld said it was Leite who brought the competition to his attention during his sophomore year. The competition starts each year with a local test of 60 multiple-choice questions followed by a national test involving another 60 questions, a free-response section and a laboratory practical with two tasks. The top 20 -- 18 males and two females this year -- are then sent to a study camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. During the camp, the students receive college-level training, with an emphasis on organic chemistry, through a series of lectures, problem-solving exercises, lab work, and testing.
The camp concludes with the selection of the four team members and the first and second alternates. Each nation sends four contestants and two coaches to the host country for nine days of theoretical and laboratory exams and lectures.
"This is really the Olympics for chemistry for young people. They are effectively doing the work of graduate students and post-doctorates. The level of research that they are doing is so significant that they will become the scientific leaders of our future," Bishop said.
Competitors are given a chance to take in the local culture.
While in Japan, Siegenfeld said the visitors got to try on kimonos, witness a Japanese tea ceremony, fold paper origami style, visit Tokyo Tower, the local science museum and several shrines, as wel as try their hand at Japanese calligraphy. Siegenfeld said he enjoyed "getting to know students from other countries who are also passionate about chemistry."
As a gold medalist, Siegenfeld is no longer eligible for the International Chemistry Olympiad. His sights are now set on college and beyond. He has not decided what university he will attend, but said, "I'm almost certain I want to study chemistry, probably inorganic chemistry ..."
"I think I might want to be a professor of chemistry," said Siegenfeld, who does enjoy other pursuits. He takes piano lessons and occasionally composes, and his hobbies include reading "random things" about chemistry and science, playing chess, playing bridge and occasionally playing tennis or table tennis.