A world-class scientist

Douglas Blane

For the first time, a Scottish student has triumphed in the International Science Olympiads. Douglas Blane reports

By representing her country in two events in the International Science Olympiads, Erica Thompson, who is now in her sixth year at Douglas Academy at Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire, has proved herself exceptional. In fact, the only person who might hesitate to use that description is the modest 17-year-old herself.

Not only did Erica represent the UK in this summer's International Biology Olympiad in Latvia and International Physics Olympiad in Indonesia, she was also the youngest member of both teams, the only girl chosen for either, the only state-school student and the only Scottish member of either team.

Her impression that Scottish schools are under-represented at these prestigious events for secondary school students is confirmed by the organisers. "We don't keep separate entry lists as the competition is for the whole UK," says Norma Broadbridge, chair of the British Biology Olympiad. "But of 329 schools taking part this year, very few were Scottish. Erica is the first Scottish student to have won through to the finals and to be selected as a member of the team."

Dr Cyril Isenberg, organiser of the British Physics Olympiad, tells a similar story. "Pupils at 1,000 or so schools around the UK take part in the first round, which they mark themselves so we don't have details. In the second round, 300 UK schools took part this year, but only 10 were Scottish."

Douglas Academy, where the heads of department have been encouraging pupils to participate in the maths and physics Olympiads for years, is an exception to this widespread lack of interest north of the border. It is probably no coincidence that a recent HM Inspectorate report particularly commended both physics and maths at the school.

When pressed, Erica admits that maths is her favourite subject, the one in which an academic career perhaps beckons, "though I may not be good enough," she says. She was disappointed to miss selection for the team for the International Maths Olympiad, held in Glasgow. However, the venues for the next two years' Olympiads, Tokyo and Athens, hold far more appeal.

Travel to exotic places is certainly part of the Olympiads' attraction. Erica spent the second week of July in Latvia for the International Biology Olympiad and the final 10 days of the month in Bali for the International Physics Olympiad. The organisers of both events allowed plenty of time to absorb the local culture.

However, it is clear from the comments of Erica's teachers - "She set up our first years' maths club and ran it almost single-handed" - that a key motivation for this talented girl is simply her enjoyment of maths and science.

So it is gratifying to report that she and her three team colleagues put up the UK's best-ever performance at this year's International Biology Olympiad and International Physics Olympiad.

Erica won a gold medal at the IBO, where her results ranked her fifth in the world.

The Olympiads, national and international, are now held in mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy and informatics. For information on the biology Olympiad, contact Norma Broadbridge, tel 0121 440 1219; for the physics Olympiad, contact Cyril Isenberg, tel 01227 823768. A useful starting point is http:olympiads.win.tue.nl


We reached the "tropical paradise" of Bali after dark and the most noticeable thing was the heat - pleasantly warm despite the sun having set hours previously.

The opening ceremony of the International Physics Olympiad was very long. The President of Indonesia herself attended, which I was very impressed by, given that Indonesia is such a huge place and Olympiads are not usually considered so important - especially in the UK.

On July 22, the day of the first (theoretical) exam, all five of us bought Balinese shirts and sarongs for a team uniform (red, white and blue, of course). The sarongs looked especially good on the boys, although some of them took a while to get used to walking differently.

Everyone - except the Chinese - had been dreading the theoretical exam for months. It turned out to be less difficult than I had expected and more difficult than I had hoped.

One day's break followed, spent mostly worrying about the practical exam the next day.

We saw some of the other teams coming out of the exam looking really terrible, so were extremely nervous by the time it came to our turn.

First question: I spent an hour doing the wrong thing and getting the wrong answer. Last question: horrible, wish I'd had more time and more sense. The others seemed marginally more happy (less unhappy). Overall the practical exam did not go very well; I should have done better. Never mind.

After that, no more exams! Two tours and lots of free time to do what we want.

First tour to a zoo, volcano, batik shop. Volcano extremely impressive, crater several kilometres across with a large lake and recent lava flow in the bottom.

Dinner with the leaders at a seafood restaurant, sunset beautiful. Sitting opposite Waldemar Gorzkowski, President of the IPhO, was a little unnerving. Talking to the Iranians, Pakistanis, Bosnians, Irish, Icelanders on the beach was very interesting. Cultural shows turned out to consist mainly of Balinese dancing and gamelan music.

On Sunday we were free to do what we liked, so the Yugoslavians went white-water rafting, the Icelanders went scuba diving, the Dutch went snorkelling and we went canoeing.

On Monday it was the closing ceremony and prizegiving. We learnt what colour medals we were to receive - celebrations all round, especially for David's Gold and Iain's Silver. I sat next to Pearl and we decided we must have come fifth and sixth girls in the world, with which we were rather pleased.

Then the farewell party at Garuda Wisnu Kencana, a "cultural park". The Indians and Pakistanis sang together, dedicating their song to "the situation back home", which I thought was a very touching gesture and shows that Olympiads have nothing to do with politics.

Spent the morning at a market getting last-minute souvenirs. Then farewells all round.

We had a wonderful time in Bali, and although we might not take up the Indonesian Minister for Education's offer of a place to study at the Institut Teknologi Bandung, we will keep in touch and remember the place fondly for a long time.

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Douglas Blane

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