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Freshman Takes Bronze in Chemistry Olympics


By Andrew R. Elby

Harvard's halls contain several athletic and mathematic Olympians who have participated in international competition.

But this year for the first time, the College has a new kind of international Olympic superstar--a chemistry jock.

Pennypacker freshman Aaron DiAntonio was one of four members of the first-ever U.S. Chemistry Olympics Team, which competed in Frankfurt, Germany, this July.

Along with the Math and Physics Olympics, the International Chemistry Olympiad is held annually in Europe; but this is the first year America entered the 20-country event.

Aaron scored 50th out of 76 international chemstuds (earning him a bronze medal), and his teammates also scored well, placing the U.S. 8th overall, an unprecedented achievement for a first-year participant.

To Aaron, the whole summer was a blur, which ironically began rather quietly in May...

Molecules or Mexico

After winning a local chemistry competition, the Missouri senior was nominated by his teacher to take a new national test sponsored by the American Chemical Society.

Apparently, the Society planned to fly the nation's 20 top scorers to a study camp at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for two weeks in June.

"I was half hoping I wouldn't get it because I wanted to go to Mexico to see my girlfriend," said DiAntonio. After taking the difficult 4-hour text, he was sure his worries were over.

"I hadn't studied for the test," which covered all high school chemistry.

He was especially sure he had blown a complex organic problem--"I'd never seen that many carbons on one molecule."


The next thing Aaron knew, he was taking his final exams early so that he could fly to Colorado on June 10.

The Chemistry Study Camp, Chemcamp for short, seemed longer than two weeks. "Basically, we ate and we slept and we did chemistry," DiAntonio said.

Every morning, the 20 all-American chemjocks listened to lightning-paced lectures, and every afternoon, they did labs equally quickly.

"I liked making urea--dried piss," joked DiAntonio.

And every night, they studied and solved problems for several hours "Major league cramming was done in the bathroom," he stated.

Often, shower to stall to sink discussions took place. "It was either in the bathroom, on the bus [to the science building], or at meals," and they chose to discuss other topics during these scarce moments of relaxation, said DiAntonio.

"In retrospect, the whole thing was fun, though at the time, it was painful," he added. To unwind, "We did your standard juvenile camp acts, but with a vengeance."

The 19 boys and I girl often screamed, sang (indistinguishable from the screaming), and played hearts, not to mention practical jokes.

The proctors sometimes opened their doors at 6 a.m. only to have "nine pizza boxes fall in on them," he said.

DiAntonio fooled around a lot because he was sure he would not make it to Germany. After the first test, for instance, a proctor asked him. "Aaron, have you ever studied thermodynamics before?"

Six labs and three tests later, however, Aaron and three other guys were chosen to represent the U.S.

During the one week break between Colorado and Germany, DiAntonio had to work, and did not have time to study.

The next time he woke up, he was with 68 boy and 8 girl international chemstuds representing West Germany, Greece, and other European coutries.

DiAntonio said that he spent the second day taking a five hour theory test, and the fourth day doing competitive labs all afternoon, leaving the other eight days free for fun.

At night, DiAntonio often joined his cohorts in the bar downstairs, where he would drink German beer and German "applevine," and would discuss issues great and small.

"The Germans were very aware of American politics," he said, adding that during his heated discussions, he would temper his conservative beliefs in the interest of diplomacy.

Day excursions included trips down the Rhine. "There are lots of castles in Germany," DiAntonio observed.

Despite the Europeans' propensity for "constantly blaring all the worst rock and roll records at all hours of the night." DiAntonio developed a tremendous comaradarie with his fellow chemfolk.

He said that the Italians taught him several new swear words, and that he spent the ten days "paying undue attention to a cute, redheaded Norwegian girl," attention that was very much reciprocated.

But even though the Czechoslovakians and other Eastern Europeans openly caroused with the Americans, the Russian chemkids would not talk with DiAntonio and his teammates.

"They had probably been told not to interact with Americans," he said adding that the Russians wouldn't even stand near the Americans in lines.

DiAntonio's only other chilling experience was receiving his scores the last day.

Though he scored 39 percent on the written exam and slightly better in the lab, he had "more confidence on the theoretical part because I burned myself in lab."

DiAntonio finished his theory test before the final buzzer: "I just didn't know some of the questions--that saves lots of time."

In lab, he titrated Pepsi to find its acidity, and "made some big ugly organic molecule. I got yellow slime--it was somewhere between slime and sludge."

But his bronze medal brightened things a little, as did a strange experience he had in the airport right before leaving.

One of the Russian students, who hadn't talked to him for ten days, suddenly said while leaving. "It's been great knowing you, I will write you!"

DiAntonio guessed that the Russian hadn't really wanted to remain segregated and was making a belated show of friendship.

The sophomore standing biochem concentrator, currently trudging through Harvard's infamous introductory organic chemistry course, may end up in Med or Grad School.

For his career, "I don't want to be secluded away in a lab," said DiAntonio, contrasting himself with the West German who won first place worldwide, whose "big goal in life is to separate the elements of the lanthanide series."

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