Scoring 94.08 and placed at 9/231, Nguyễn Hoàng Dương was the sole 11th grade student in Vietnam to earn an International Chemistry Olympiad medal in 2020.
He was playing with his little brother when he was interviewed on August 2nd, three days after the result of the Olympiad was announced. Countless compliments were given to him for his feat. He expressed his satisfaction of achieving his goal in an international competition.
He still vividly remembered the result announcement on the evening three days before. He and the other three 12th graders were called to Hanoi National University of Education to witness it. His teachers who were responsible for managing the Olympiad team, and representatives from the Ministry of Education were also present. When they knew that all of them received gold medals, everyone was bursting with happiness.
COVID-19 prevented mass gathering, therefore Dương’s family was prohibited from witnessing the achievement with their son. Seeing Dương among the top 10, they skipped their dinner, rushed to Hanoi National University to congratulate and bring Dương back home “Those moments are unforgettable to my family”, expressed the gold medal winner.
Born to a married couple, both of them worked in the medical profession, Dương used to have a passion for Mathematics. He had accumulated a myriad of accomplishments, including first place in a Mathematics competition in Russia, a High Distinction award in an Australian secondary school Math competition, and being listed in the top 5% in American Math Competition. Despite those impressive feats, he still transitioned to Chemistry when he was first introduced to it in the 8th grade.
At that time the curriculum was largely theoretical, Dương could only have two or three experiments every year. He browsed for experiments online, and he was intrigued by the transformation of one substance into another substance in a chemical reaction. His memory of all medicines prescribed by his father to his patients also served him in his quest to master Chemistry. He held firm to his choice when he realized the close relation between Chemistry and life.
He got his first two achievements in Chemistry in his 9th grade, a first place in a district level competition, and a third place in a city level competition. He successfully passed three entrance exams of three different schools for gifted students. He ultimately picked HUS High School for Gifted Students because of his relationships with older students in the school, and the opportunity to take part in national and international competitions.
His talent was immediately discovered by his teachers, so he was allowed to attend classes for 11th and 12th grade students. Dương was included in the national competition team afterward. He only had 4 months to cram everything from the 10th grade to the 12th grade coursebook to prepare for the competition.
He devoted the majority of his time to Chemistry, even when he was at home. Dương was initially stressed by tough Chemistry problems, but the desire to score high in the competition kept him going. He never slept before 12 AM, which was, according to him, unprecedented. He was third place in the competition, the highest place earned by a 10th grade student nationwide.
When he was preparing for his Olympiad, COVID-19 pandemic appeared, all Olympiads were either postponed or cancelled. He knew that he only had one chance in the following year to participate in an international competition. In late June, the Ministry of Education suddenly announced that Turkey would host the International Chemistry Olympiad online. This news caught Dương by surprise, so he only had 20 days to prepare for that.
Dương had only a sole focus in those rough 20 days: Chemistry. He crammed with his upperclassmen from 8 AM in the morning until 8 PM in the evening, sometimes 10 PM. The teachers who manage the team were also stressed when they had to help the students cramming in-depth knowledge of the 25 Chemistry problems outlined by the organization in a short period of time. He was passionate and content with the ordeal despite all the hardship.
"I learned a lot from my upperclassmen", Dương recounted. Some of them were good at thinking, some excelled at being careful, some had amazing problem solving speed. Sometimes Dương tried to match the fastest problem solver in the team, or learned from the most careful member to see if he could be more accurate.
On the day of the online competition, four participants were seated at the front corner in a wide classroom at the Hanoi National University of Education. The room was monitored by cameras at every angle so the organizers could observe the process. Five hours later, the managing teachers had 5 minutes to scan the test to send to the organizers. Despite not scoring 100%, Dương was still placed in the top 10 students with the highest marks.
Some called out that the four gold medals were undeserved, due to the fact that the test was held online, thus there were no practical experiments - which was a known weakness among Vietnamese participants. Dương partially understood the logic behind that sentiment, but he still believed that Vietnamese students still possessed the skill for practical experiments.
"The test had some very difficult theoretical questions that demanded previous experience in practical experiments to answer. Moreover, in recent years, Vietnamese participants did well in this part, such as Bá Tân, who scored 100% in this section” Dương said, with the hope to continue to compete in Japan the following year to debunk this myth.
Ms. Nguyễn Phương Thanh was very proud of Dương and his little brother. She was the Director Regulatory Affairs & Quality Assurance for a representative office of Abbott (an American company) in Vietnam. Her husband was Assoc.Prof. Nguyễn Văn Tuấn, Dean of Psychiatry in Hanoi Medical University, Vice Director of the Institute of Mental Health at Bạch Mai hospital. They were preoccupied with their professions, forcing both of their children to be independent early.
According to Ms. Thanh, Dương had high self-discipline when it came to autodidacticism. He worked himself with tests from previous competitions, articles written by Nobel award winning Chemists. Books on Chemistry can be found in every nook and cranny of his home, even in the toilet. Ms. Thanh thought that Dương totally deserved his gold medal.
Mr. Vi Anh Tuấn, Vice Principal of HUS High School for Gifted Students, who was Dương’s Chemistry teacher at the school, also agreed that Dương did his best to earn the medal. Mr. Tuấn contacted Dương after he earned first place in his 9th grade, and invited him to his school for orientation.
Mr. Tuấn was elated and proud of Dương’s achievement despite the fact that Dương was not the first 11th grade student at HUS High School for Gifted Students to receive a gold medal. “A 11th grade student ranked 9th in a competition with 231 participants from 60 countries is a rare occurrence”, he asserted.
Mr, Nguyễn Ngọc Hà, Dean of the Faculty of Chemistry, Hanoi National University, Trưởng khoa Hóa Đại học Sư Phạm Hà Nội, Head of Vietnam Chemistry Olympiad Delegation, highly commended Dương for his intelligence and resourcefulness despite having guided him for only 20 days before the competition.
Back to his regular life, Dương now spends more time on his personal hobbies such as reading, piano, and sport. Dương hopes to continue to compete in international competition and earn another gold medal next year.