Marymount Staffer Travels to Vietnam to Help With Biology Olympiad

Marymount University’s Alena James recently returned home from Hanoi, Vietnam, where she served as a juror at the International Biology Olympiad. Competing in the July 17-23 event were some of the world’s brightest high school students. 

    “It was quite the experience to be a part of an international event in the spirit of biology and where politics did not dominate the discussion,” said James, who is the lab coordinator for MU’s Biology & Physical Science Department.

She enjoyed meeting other biologists and making new friends from Tajikistan, Canada, South Africa, South Korea, Australia, Iceland and many others countries. She was also happy to see how well the American team performed,

    “They worked incredibly hard to prepare for these exams, and several of them spent our entire plane ride to Vietnam studying,” she said. “Seeing them take home three gold medals and a silver medal was very inspiring.”

    Of the 253 international competitors, Peter Dun of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was ranked No . 7; Bowen Jing of West Lafayette, Indiana, 10; Thomas Xiong of Katy, Texas, 26; Varkey Alumootil of San Diego, California, 35.

    James first met the team when the top 20 biology students in the U.S. competed on Marymount’s campus in June at the USA Biology Olympiad Finals. Nearly 10,500 students from across the country originally tested for the competition, which is sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Education in MacLean.

    Dr. Todd Rimkus, chair of MU’s Department of Biology & Physical Sciences, said hosting the Biology Olympiad at Marymount was a great experience for both James and the faculty.

    “They were very bright kids who were like sponges, just soaking up knowledge,” he added.

    He also said that in whatever she does, James is always willing to go the extra mile.

    “She’s extremely dynamic, extremely capable, and though trained in microbiology, she’s always looking for ways to expand her knowledge and learn more in other areas,” he said.

    The trip was an eye-opener for James, who said the competition was intense for the students, with exams full of graduate level questions that required critical thinking skills and a strong knowledge of science.

    “Students from several countries had never touched some of the lab equipment they were tested on due to lack of resources, and this no doubt affected their marks on the exams. This was very eye opening for me and made me feel very fortunate that Marymount and many schools across the U.S. have such great resources for students to work with.”

    The trip wasn’t all work. It included excursions to museums, villages, rivers and lakes along with music and local cuisine.

    While biology was the focus of the Hanoi event, world politics did impact the competition. Because of the recent coup attempt in Turkey, members of the Turkish team were stranded in the Istanbul airport, delaying their arrival. Their government also ordered them to return home early, after taking only a portion of their exams.

    “All member states were sympathetic to these students, and we all quite literally stood with them in solidarity,” James said. It was also in a spirit of unity that the entire group celebrated the birthday of a fellow competitor.

    “Being in a third world country singing Happy Birthday to a Russian delegate in unison with 72 other countries right after standing united with the delegates from Turkey was one of the most uplifting experiences of my life,” she said. “It made me find hope for a better world and was my favorite part of the entire trip.”


Photo captions

Photo 1

Alena James of Marymount University, left, and Kathy Frames of the Center for Excellence in Education take a boat tour through a UNESCO World Heritage site in Vietnam’s Ninh Binh province.

Photo 2

Alena James of Marymount University, left, is shown with U.S. team members Thomas Xiong of Katy, Texas; Peter Dun of Fort Wayne, Indiana; Varkey Alumootil of San Diego, California; Bowen Jing of West Lafayette, Indiana; and Kathy Frames of the Center for Excellence in Education.

Photo 3

Hanoia, Vietnam, site of the 27th International Biology Olympiad.

Photo 4

St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Photo 5

Bai Dinh Pagoda in Vietnam.