The Chemistry of Competition

For most people, chemistry is puzzling. For 16-year-old Soorajnath “Sooraj” Boominathan, “Chemistry is like a puzzle, and I enjoy solving puzzles.”

Sooraj’s problem-solving ability landed him a coveted spot on the United States team that competed in the International Chemistry Olympiad in July—where he walked away with a silver medal.

As the Olympic-sounding name suggests, Sooraj had to earn top scores in various qualifying rounds to be selected for the four-person team. Various exams tested his knowledge of chemistry, while lab simulations proved his skills at practical application, such as synthesizing compounds.

Lofty as it sounds, Sooraj doesn’t walk around spouting out formulas. He’s just a regular teen who enjoys hanging out with his friends. Nor does he claim to have had an interest in chemistry his whole life, since, as he said, “You don’t even take chemistry until high school.”

Accepted at OSSM

Sooraj BoominathanThe tipping point for the Deer Creek student came when Sooraj was accepted into the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics (OSSM) for his junior and senior year. The two-year residential school, funded by the Oklahoma legislature, is free to selected students, but acceptance is highly competitive.

 “I was excited to attend, because being there meant I could take science classes I couldn’t take at a regular public school,” Sooraj said. “Instead of one basic chemistry class, I could take organic chemistry, bio-chemistry and physical chemistry.”

OSSM has sent students to the international competition before, but none in recent years. When Sooraj expressed an interest, one of his professors, Dr. Fazlur Rahman, shared his knowledge of the process and helped Sooraj work through the beginning levels of the event.

First, Sooraj took a general exam, which narrowed the field from 16,000 to 1,000 students in the United States. Further exams and lab tests narrowed the field to the top 20 students, who attended a training camp at the US Air Force Academy. Although Sooraj made it into the top 20 last year as a junior, this year, as a senior, he secured his spot as a finalist. “I’m pretty focused when I need to be, but I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I’d make it so far,” Sooraj said.

At The Olympiad

The 47th International Chemistry Olympiad took place at the Moscow State University in Azerbaijan, Baku. The scene of the competition was much what one would expect: an austere, modern laboratory with stainless steel work tables for the lab test, and a typical university classroom for the exam.

“Nerve-wracking” is the phrase Sooraj used to describe his feelings the week of the competition. “After working so hard, it all came down to a few hours of testing: five hours of test taking and five hours in the lab,” Sooraj said. “The lab part didn’t go too great for me because of my nerves and the time pressure. The theoretical exam was on a different day, and once I settled into the test, my heart stopped racing and my mind cleared.”

Even so, Sooraj placed 48th out of 290 students from 79 different countries. According to Sooraj, he felt enormous pressure being surrounded by so many brilliant students during the test, and yet, he enjoyed great camaraderie with them during the down times.

“The main thing I took away was that kids from around the world each have a unique culture, but we aren’t all that different. I had perceptions of what people are like from different countries—but we struggle with many of the same things.”

Sacrificing for the Silver

Despite Sooraj’s natural aptitude for chemistry, there’s no denying that his abilities came with hard work. He spent two years preparing for the competition. “I like hanging out with my friends and watching TV, but I had to cut way back and stay home to study,” Sooraj said.

He expressed appreciation for the sacrifices his parents made. His parents, who moved to Oklahoma ten years ago from India, both have a background in science. His father works in computer science and his mother is a former biology teacher.

Prior to high school, Sooraj enjoyed mathematics—but in chemistry, he found an avenue to use creative deduction, uncover clues, and experiment. As he learned about pioneers in the field of chemistry, he came to admire the way they used both logic and creativity to solve problems and invent solutions.

In the opening ceremony of the International Chemistry Olympiad, the organizers tasked the students with becoming the new pioneers by solving current mysteries of science in order to protect humanity. Sooraj isn’t sure where his path will lead, but this fall he will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 “I’d love to eventually develop cutting-edge nanotechnology products,” Sooraj said. “Will I change the world? It’s hard to say where I’m headed yet, but there are lots of options in this new field that could potentially change the world. I know I’m grateful to OSSM for preparing me to compete in the Olympiad. The experience has given me self-confidence, opened my eyes to new cultures and proved to me that hard work does pay off.”

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