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From Near and Far: How an Event can Shape Lives

Itzel and Ivan both live in Zurich and share at least two things: They’ve participated in the International Science Olympiad, and are both involved in organising the International Chemistry Olympiad IChO 2023 in Zurich, an event which is bringing together young people from almost 90 countries and regions.

Itzel Condado-Morales: Originally from Mexico, studied chemistry at UNAM in Mexico City, and received a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University in the UK. After that, she did a Postdoc at University Hospital of Zurich and at D-CHAB of ETH Zurich. Since January, Itzel works as a scientist at Numab, a pharma company in Zurich, developing antibodies against cancer.

van Istomin: Originally from Russia, studied biophysics, received a PhD in Biotechnology and Bioengineering from EPFL and is now working at ETH Zurich to organise the International Chemistry Olympiad IChO 2023. He is responsible - among other tasks - for the 200 volunteers that are needed for this international event.


Itzel, Ivan, you both participated in the International Science Olympiads during your time at high school. Tell us more about your experiences.

  • Ivan: I’ve had a great time participating in two International Biology Olympiads in Taiwan and Singapore. Being part of this international community, meeting students from all over the world and also the local team guides (every participating delegation gets a team guide, usually a local volunteer from the host university) – that was great. I am still in touch with many of them.

  • Itzel: I’ve participated twice in the Chemistry Olympiad on a national level in Mexico. In 2008, I qualified for the Mexican delegations which allowed me to participate at the IChO in Hungary, as well as the Ibero-American Chemistry Olympiad (OIAQ) in Costa Rica. I also volunteered as a guide when the OIAQ was held in Mexico and mentored the Mexican teams thereafter. At the Olympiads I’ve made a lot of friends from near and far. I am still in contact with my Hungarian guide from back then (laughs). Also, the IChO definitively helped to shape may career. So, I was very happy when I heard that the IChO 2023 will be held here in Zurich.


How did the Olympiad shape your career exactly?


  • Itzel: Back then, I knew I was good in science but I did not know exactly what to study. However, the people I met during the Olympiad helped me decide to move from my hometown in Veracruz to Mexico City for my studies in chemistry.

  • Ivan: My participation has certainly led me to my current job here at ETH Zurich. This is now the fourth International Olympiad that I have helped organize. I was also a trainer of national teams for a while. And certainly, participating in the Olympiads has strengthened my will to pursue an academic career.


You mentioned the many international contacts you’ve established. How did they influence your lives?


  • Ivan: I was very excited about the network I built to people from all around the globe. It was the time when Facebook became a big thing, which made connecting and maintaining contact very easy. It truly feels like a big family; wherever I am, there are always people I can reach out to. With many of my friends from the Olympiads, I also organised meetings and trips together; even the godfather of my daughter is an Olympiad alumnus (laughs).

  • Itzel: I am still in contact with the girl with whom I shared the room during the Olympiad in Hungary. She is from Brazil and later in life went to study at MIT in Boston. It was actually her, who brought up the idea that I could also go abroad for studying, which was something I had never considered before.


Itzel, you registered as a team guide for the IChO 2023. What are your expectations?


  • Itzel: I expect it to be a very diverting experience. I will get to know young people and hear about their ideas for their future…we will also be able to exchange our experiences at the Olympiads. Back in 2008, when I was participating, we had such a friendly guide. Volunteering and serving as a guide myself now, gives me the opportunity to return that nice experience. I have been living for three years in Switzerland, and I got married to a Swiss. I feel like Switzerland is my second home now, and I really like this country. So, I hope that I can also show the IChO participants what I like about Switzerland and where they could potentially study in the future. I believe that the science in Switzerland is amazing and that also the quality of life is great, such as all the beautiful nature that Switzerland offers, like the mountains, which invite you to go hiking and skiing. As a Mexican with no snow experience in the past, skiing has become my favourite hobby to do in the winter (laughs).

  • Ivan: For me, it’s also about giving back. I am very passionate about teaching and pedagogy. Many societies like the Swiss invest a lot into helping students with weaknesses or learning issues. But there is still a shortage of schools that offer enough of a challenge for kids that are very interested in the sciences and whose talents go beyond of what is being taught at school. The Olympiads help to close that gap, which gives me the motivation to support them.


What would you tell other potential volunteers? Why should they register?


  • Itzel: (laughs) I’ve already convinced my husband to join. You get to know a lot of different people from many different backgrounds. I told him it’s a bit like the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter, where teams from many places come together.

  • Ivan: What I often tell people is that in those ten days you will also see many different places in Switzerland, that you have maybe never heard of or visited before: research institutes, companies and of course several touristic highlights.


And finally: What do you wish to the 350 young participants of IChO 2023?

  • Itzel: Believe in yourselves! It is already great that you are among the selection of your country. If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self to really enjoy this event. Do not just try and be good in the exams, but also take the opportunity to get to know as many people as possible. From personal experience I can say that back then, I think I was too focused on winning a medal. I wish that I had enjoyed the event more.

  • Ivan: What Itzel said also resonates with me. I hope that the students will really use this occasion to connect with each other and to stay in touch after the event. One of our main themes of the IChO 2023 is “Togetherness”. And this is what remains after such an event. As a community, we can achieve so much more together than what we can achieve alone.


Meet People from around the Globe. Become a Team Guide!

Do you life in Switzerland and are 18 years or older? Do you want to be part of IChO 2023 and participate in some interesting activities around the event? Feel free to join us and register your interest at https://www.icho2023.ch/volunteers.


Interview and text by Marco Gerber, Head of the Organising Committee of IChO 2023

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