On May 22, 2018, NJIT hosted more than 300 of Northern New Jersey’s most exceptional high school chemists as they competed for academic glory in the Thirty-Third Annual New Jersey Chemistry Olympics.
The Olympics — organized by NJIT's Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science and the North Jersey Section of the American Chemical Society (NJACS) — brought together more than 28 student teams from 18 high schools, meeting to match wits in an afternoon of competitive research events, science communication challenges and live lab competitions. Additional funding was provided by Merck and Exemplify BioPharma.
“Welcome Olympians!” said Dr. Kevin Belfield, Dean of NJIT’s College of Science and Liberal Arts at the start of the competition’s award ceremony, held at the campus’s Wellness and Events Center. “This is a historic day….on the birthday of two Nobel Prize-winning chemists, Herbert C. Brown and George A. Olah, we are fortunate to be able to celebrate your achievements here today.”
As the ceremony’s medalists were announced and awards were tallied, Edison, New Jersey’s John P. Stevens High School's Team A emerged as this year’s overall victors, taking home a total of three medals across the competition’s three major categories. They also took home the competition’s grand prize: the “2018 Platinum Crucible”.
“We were really surprised to win the final group award,” said Edward Neves, a senior at John P. Stevens High School who teamed with fellow senior Shan Jiang to win first prize in the competition’s “Environmental Chemistry Research” event. “Last year we took second overall, but this year we put in a lot of work and we were able to take first.”
“Edward and I have been doing the Olympics for a couple of years, and we have seen our school go from third place when we started to first place this year,” added Jiang. “It is really cool, every year we got more passionate about it and put more effort into it until we came out on top.”
This year’s Olympics featured a total of 10 events divided within three distinct categories for teams to compete in: “General Events”, “Lab Events” and “Research Events”.
The competition’s “General Events” category featured events testing teams’ skills as science communicators through stage presentations and website demonstrations before live audiences. The category’s events challenged teams to engage audiences while conveying scientific concepts such as polymerization and the chemistry underlying the smells and flavors associated with strawberry and peppermint.
The afternoon’s “Lab Events” category showcased each team’s accuracy and precision in the lab — featuring challenges to transform Smartphones into UV-Vis spectrophotometers for lab analysis, and competitions to create design and test procedures for measuring caffeine in popular energy drinks.
Finally, teams competing in the “Research Events” category were tested to conduct and submit their own research within structured topics, ranging from research of bioplastics toward environmental sustainability efforts, to research detailing how to improve the production of edible chocolate through analysis of chocolate’s crystalline structure.
Jiang and Neves took gold medals in the “Environmental Chemistry Research” event for their unique bioplastics research showing how they were able to produce eco-friendly bioplastics from discarded banana peels.
“You can make bioplastics from all types of sources, so we used banana peels which contain a lot of starch that is usable to make bioplastics,” said Jiang. “Instead of sticking to buying material from the store, we wanted to be unique and derive the source ourselves.”
The competition’s end-of-day award ceremony closed with special speaking appearances from New Jersey Chemistry Olympics alumni and Harvard University chemistry Ph.D. candidate Jason Anesini, as well as Kevin Campos, executive director of process chemistry at Merck.
“I think a lot of students in high school may not realize that they could conduct research that they love like this for a living and actually make a difference,” said Campos. “For me, the biggest thing about coming to an event like this is being able to make the connection to budding scientists early in their careers and let them know that a career in research can make a difference in the world.”
“We are learning in school, but there is a big difference in learning information and applying it,’ said Jiang, “Having the opportunity as young students to take the information that we learn in class and apply it here with a little bit of competitive edge makes this event really fun and great for us.”
For additional information about the competition’s 2018 medal winners, participating schools, advisors, event descriptions and more, visit: http://njchemistryolympics.com.