October 19, 2018

Quantum Leap

Benjamin Nguyen tugged at his blue-rimmed goggles and held his breath, a test tube teetering in his hand. A standout student from Valencia High School in Orange County, California, he knows his way around a lab, but after shattering a pair of beakers the day before, he wasn’t taking any chances.

Nguyen was among 20 teenage chemists, top scorers from across the country, to converge on the University of Mary Washington’s Jepson Science Center early this month. Professor of Chemistry Kelli Slunt, long involved with the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad, pushed for UMW to host its annual two-week summer training camp, held until this year at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado.

Kelli Slunt keeps a close eye on two up-and-coming chemists inside a state-of-the-art Jepson Science Center lab. om across the country competed to represent the U.S. in July's 48th International Chemistry Olympiad. (Photo by Norm Shafer). UMW Assistant Professor of Chemistry Davis Oldham leads a Friday morning session during the 2016 training camp for the International Chemistry Olympiad. The two-week camp brought 20 of the country's top teen chemists to UMW. (Photo by Norm Shafer). Associate Professor of Chemistry Nicole Crowder uses a model kit to illustrate cubic structure as high school chemists take notes. This summer, UMW became the second-ever venue to host the training camp for the international competition. (Photo by Norm Shafer). Professor Kelli Slunt helps a student during a lab exercise designed to prepare camp members to compete on the international level.  (Photo by Norm Shafer).

“This is huge,” said Slunt, 2016 head camp mentor. “For my colleagues and me, it’s an opportunity to teach and mentor students of the highest academic caliber, future leaders in the scientific community. For UMW, it’s an opportunity to showcase our excellent facilities and dedication to STEM.”

Plucked from high schools in 10 states, from New York to Texas, star chemistry students – seven girls and 13 boys – rose from the ranks, outscoring more than 1,000 peers who sat for the nearly five-hour national exam. Four finalists will go on to represent the United States at next month’s 48th International Chemistry Olympiad in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The summer camp, sponsored by the American Chemistry Society, is loaded with labs, lectures, and exams covering analytical, organic, inorganic, physical, and biological chemistry.

“It’s a very intense program,” said Jacob Sanders, a camp peer mentor and Harvard doctoral student who won silver at the 2005 international competition in Taipei, Taiwan. “They’re basically learning about chemistry and thinking about chemistry every day for two weeks.”

Due to concerns over which country would host this year’s final contest, camp organizers were too late to reserve space, as they normally do, at the USAFA. When UMW came up as an alternate venue, Slunt slammed into high gear, consulting with colleagues, lining up logistics, and pushing fellow faculty members into new territory.

“I’m going to try and not let America down today,” Associate Professor Nicole Crowder joked at the start of a Friday morning lecture on cubic structures.

UMW Assistant Professor Davis Oldham and Associate Professor Charlie Sharpless took turns teaching classes, along with Associate Professor Leanna Giancarlo, who also served as camp coordinator. Fredericksburg-area retired chemist William Wacher and a handful of Mary Washington students pitched in, as well, helping prepare solutions and samples for the chemistry-savvy contenders.

Sending its first team to the global competition in 1984, the U.S. has twice won the International Chemistry Olympiad.

Slunt, who earned a bachelor’s degree from UMW in 1991 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from U.Va. in 1995, also directs Mary Washington’s Honors Program. She fit the organization and orchestration of the camp into her already-crammed schedule, working to squeeze it in between a European Capitals study-abroad trip and her own 25th UMW reunion.

For what the experience gives budding young chemists across the United States, though, she’d do it all again. “It was an honor to be asked to host this event at UMW.”