What does it mean to participate in the IBO? Story 2.

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Kay Aull was a participant in the IBO 2003 and 2004. He shares his experience below.

I was in the IBO twice representing the USA, in 2003 (Belarus) and 2004 (Australia). I won silver the first time and gold the second.

Belarus was…surreal. I was half-convinced I’d fallen asleep on my Campbell and was dreaming the whole thing. Australia was mind-blowing in its own very different way. Both were amazing experiences in ways that had nothing to do with books or exams.

The program is roughly the same in all cases. Before the practical, you’ll be taken around to see whatever equipment you’ll be asked to use. If you’re from a relatively well-off country, this might seem a bit silly…then you realize the team next to you has literally never seen a microscope before.

The practical is an all-day event, four exams of roughly 90 minutes each. They divide the students into four groups, one student per country in each, then you rotate through the exams. You’re shepherded around to keep you from exchanging information – Australia had each group wear different colored lab coats so we couldn’t mix. Time management and keeping a cool head is paramount on these.

Then there’s a day off, then the theoretical. That is a long, long day. After emerging from the 6-hour (plus extra time because of blackouts) exam in Belarus, all I wanted to do was stare into space, because my brain was just fried. Australia was better because we got a lunch break, but still.

It’s not all exams, of course. You’re there for almost two weeks, and for much of that time you need to be kept busy while the jury approves, translates, and scores the exams. So much of the time, you’ll be taken to various (often biology-oriented) cultural attractions.

In Belarus, we were taken around the country. We saw the capital of Minsk, where we went to the city center (complete with the one plaza where all you can see is new futuristic buildings), botanical gardens, and shopping mall; their national children’s camp (I’m pretty sure this was next to Chernobyl, which their government denies ever happened…we were warned not to swim there because of “schistosomiasis”); their national swamp (the mosquitoes were so numerous that we didn’t bother to aim, just walked around slapping ourselves constantly, and so large they could be dissected with a small stick); and their WWII memorial and both of the buildings in the country built before 1918 (Belarus is right between Germany and Moscow, so it got bulldozed in both world wars). We saw a ballet and local performances (a parade where girls make their costumes out of flowers and a mock witch-burning ceremony). Wherever we went, police would block off the highways to make room for us. It was surreal…this stuff isn’t the half of it, but it gives you a flavor.

Australia is much bigger, of course, so we only saw the area around Brisbane. We went to the cloud forests and the beach (where I jumped in fully clothed while encouraging the Iranians to go wading, then fell in the sand…ended up wearing a towel as pants for the three-hour bus ride back); the zoo (we got a backstage tour); a Sea World amusement park (we got a dolphin-training demo, then the largest buffet I’ve ever seen, then they opened the rides and I went on a loop-de-loop roller coaster eight times in a row); and a sheep-shearing demo and barn dance.

You’ll get to meet people from all over the world, which is pretty amazing. There are good memories (the three-hour argument the English speakers had over what a badly translated practical question actually said…the Swedish-French-English-Mandarin translation chain we assembled so two students with a common research interest could talk shop…) and memories that stay with you in other ways (the look on our Belarussian guide’s face when she saw the lavish color pictures in our Campbells…the guy who went home and promptly lost a leg to a landmine…).

The Olympiad program served me well as I was getting started in biology, and I’m glad the US started its program just in time for me (2003 was our first year).