Alumnus, seniors win at Olympiads

Joshua Oreman ’09, Jonathan Lee ’08, and Rebecca Jacobs ’09 brought home medals in a different kind of Olympiad: the International Science Olympiads.

Oreman won a gold medal in the International Physics Olympiad in Hanoi, Vietnam and Lee won silver in the Chemistry Olympiad in Budapest, Hungary.

Harvard-Westlake was the only school in the United States to have students on both the national physics and chemistry teams. It was also the only independent school to have a student on either team.

In the physics competition, four of the five U.S. participants won gold, and the fifth won silver.

The competition consisted of a three-problem theoretical examination and a practical examination, each five hours long.

Oreman, who took the two most advanced physics courses at the school last year, (AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism), said the level of difficulty was so high it would be impossible to make a comparison.

376 high school students from 82 countries competed. Participants with scores in the top six percent were awarded gold medals, those in the top 12 percent received silver medals, and those in the top 18 percent received bronze medals.

Antonio Nassar taught Oreman last year in his AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism class, and said Oreman was innately gifted.

“He would get [things] right away. He really saw through, and could also anticipate what I would teach. He was a step ahead of the class. He just had it,” Nassar said.

Oreman, who was selected as a member of the five-person traveling team after several rounds of examinations and screening and a nine-day training camp at the University of Maryland, also credits hard work.

“[The coaches] had asked that we do about one old IPhO [a practice test from previous competitions] per day, which is about five hours, so it was quite a lot of preparation… I finished just about every IPhO since 1980, and it helped, definitely,” said Oreman.

Oreman said his participation in this year’s Olympiad “really broadened my horizons.” He hopes to return next year, when it will be hosted in Mexico.

At the Chemistry Olympiad, Lee’s silver medal helped give the U.S. team a fourth place ranking out of the 66 participating nations.

Lee underwent a similar selection process in the months leading up to the competition. In June he joined 20 other finalists at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado for the two-week Chemistry Olympiad summer camp.

Lee said he was “ecstatic” but also surprised when he was announced as one of the four students selected for the traveling team.

Christopher Dartt, who was Lee’s chemistry teacher for two years, said a combination of hard work, “very good lab skills” and “excellent test taking skills” led to Lee’s success.

Lee is now a freshman at Harvard University, where he plans to major in chemistry. He was previously a semifinalist in the U.S. Biology Olympiad, the Physics Olympiad and an American Invitational Mathematics Examination qualifier.

In the International Linguistics Olympiad in Bulgaria in August, Jacobs brought home the bronze medal in the individual competition, and the gold in the team competition. In its second year participating in the Olympiad, the United States competed against 16 teams from around the world and took home 11 of 33 awards. The United States sent two teams to the ILO and secured both gold and silver medals in the team competition.

“Most of the other countries competing have a long history of high school-level linguistic competitions, so it’s remarkable that only in our second year the United States has done so well,” Jacobs said.

“I’m very glad that I got a medal this year. Last year, only one of the U.S. team members scored high enough for an individual award.”

In the competition, students emulate skills used by researchers and scholars in computational linguistics.

Students were presented with obscure languages that they had never studied, such as Micmac, a Native American language spoken in Canada. Using clues provided about sounds, words and grammar, the students were judged on how quickly and accurately they could decipher the rules and structures of the languages.

A gifted student in science and math, Jacobs found that excelling in these subjects helped her solve the linguistics problems.

“Being good at math helps,” Jacobs said. “Linguistics involves logic problems and you can apply skills learned in math to solve them.”

Dean Rose-Ellen Racanelli encouraged Jacobs to compete and arranged for her to take the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad qualifying test, Jacobs said.

The students selected to be part of the United States delegation to the Olympiad were chosen from over 750 high school students who participated in the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad qualifying events at 77 sites throughout the United States and Canada.

Jacobs also said that she can read Bulgarian, albeit with difficulty.

“It was somewhat disorienting, but exciting from a linguistic point of view, that Bulgarian uses the Cyrillic alphabet rather than the Latin alphabet,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs has been interested in linguistics since she was 13 and plans to double-major in math and linguistics in college.