On his second read-through of Campbell and Reece’s Biology, 18-year-old Jason Wu wrote the words he didn’t know into his spiral-bound notebook. By the fifth read-through, he had narrowed his focus to key charts and figures, and by the time he packed the 1,312-page tome into his Argentina-bound suitcase in July, the recent St. Louis, Mo., high school graduate pretty much knew the seventh edition front and back. He was ready to represent the United States at the International Biology Olympiad in Rio Cuarto, where he and students from across the world would be tested on theoretical biology skills and their prowess at the bench.
“Anything remotely mentioned in there is considered to be fair game,” says Margery Anderson, director of the United States of America Biology Olympiad (USABO). “Most students pretty much memorize that book.” Though Wu’s teammate, Meng Xiao He of Chapel Hill, NC, says he read it only once in total, He says another teammate, Allen Lin of Holmdel, NJ, did so eight times.
For Wu, the journey began the previous summer. After a disappointing Math Olympiad semifinals finish, he was ready for a new challenge. So he began reading Biology, a few hours every school night and up to eight hours on weekends. In the March semifinal-qualifying exam given by his school, he secured his place in the finals. Wu skipped his own senior prom to study, and after graduation, he read the textbook from the moment he woke up until midnight.
In June, Wu, He, Lin, and seventeen other semifinalists attended a two-week “camp” for intensive biology training at George Mason University. During daily 8-hour lab sessions designed by volunteer professors, the hopefuls protein-purified, gene-mapped, and dissected their way to the team-qualifying exams.
Wu was worried about his chances during the practical portion of the finals as he stole glances at his evaluators “standing in the corner ticking off marks where you screwed up” – particularly when he miscalculated a serial dilution for the spectrophotometry test. But he made it to the top four, and spent an additional four days at George Mason training with his new teammates on the art of micropipetting before he was sent home with a dissection kit and his second copy of Biology.
After a month of ramped-up preparation on their own, Wu and his teammates flew to Argentina, laden with books and high hopes. Anderson says the students were up the first night until 2 a.m. studying and arguing over DNA sequences with other teams in the tiny lobby of their Cordoba hotel, catching up on sleep on the bus to Rio Cuarto. In free moments throughout the week, at the competition cookout or dance, they chatted with their international counterparts: Wu on the topic of American foreign policy and Shrek, He on science curricula abroad.
At the end of an intense week of studying and competition, Wu and He both emerged with a silver medal, while Lin and Jawon Lee of San Diego were two of 20 who scored gold, with Lee placing fourth in the world. Wu’s main regret was that he never got around to dissecting the clam his mother brought to him from a Chinese restaurant; a clam comprised a quarter of the practical exam. And He says, “I kind of knew I wouldn’t be ready, because I hadn’t even read the book more than once. I said whatever, I’ll do my best and have fun.”
Still, considering their successes, USABO’s Anderson was disappointed by the United States’ lukewarm welcoming committee, which lacked the receptions with the Minister of Education and national flag-waving that greeted their Asian national counterparts. Lee says she received a letter from her governor when she made the team, but “wasn’t really expecting a response” upon her triumphant return. She didn’t get one.
The Center for Excellence in Education in Maryland, a small nonprofit, runs the USABO, and the United States joined the 17-year-old Russian-originated International Olympiad in 2002. “These are the people who are going to lead our science, technology, and engineering fields in the future, and we tend to neglect that,” says Terry Hufford, USABO’s academic coordinator and professor emeritus at George Washington University, one of several senior researchers who have committed time to the program.
“There is some stigma to the kid who hauls around his biology textbook, not the same stigma for the kid who hauls around his tennis racket,” says Wu. But “if you really have that tunnel vision, it makes it easier to ignore the social pressure.” Meng Xiao He says he’ll try to qualify again next year. As for Wu, who started at Yale this fall, Biology remained unopened the entire summer.