MOUNTAINSIDE — Christopher Hillenbrand of Mountainside always has been ahead of the game as a student. It’s no surprise that he is the only high school freshman who qualified to compete for one of four spots on the United States International Chemistry Olympiad team. He is one of only 20 students who have been invited to participate in a two-week study camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado in June.
During his years at The Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison, Hillenbrand regularly attended classes with older students. He began taking high school math and science as a fourth-grader and developed a special bond with Wardlaw-Hartridge high school chemistry teacher Roland Marionni of Scotch Plains.
Although he is currently a freshman at Regis High School in Manhattan, Christopher credits Marionni and The Wardlaw-Hartridge School for providing the foundation and sparking his interest in chemistry. He enjoyed the opportunity to study chemistry during his middle school years at Wardlaw-Hartridge and developed a passion for a subject that does not come easily for many students. He was inspired by an assigned reading of “Uncle Tungsten,” a book by Oliver Sacks, and continued to increase his interest and knowledge of chemistry.
“I have been strongly focused on chemistry ever since the assignment,” Hillenbrand said. “Mr. Marionni also allowed me to do experiments with him after school. These experiments were fun and engaging, and materialized the knowledge taught in the course. I picked up a lot of knowledge from the Internet as well – I like to read random stuff on Wikipedia a lot. It’s actually exciting.”
Cheng Yen Hillenbrand, Christopher’s mother, credits The Wardlaw-Hartridge School for motivating her son. It wasn’t easy, or commonplace, for a school to send an elementary or middle school student to a high school classroom. Rhona Eserner, Upper School Head, made sure everything ran smoothly for Hillenbrand.
“Something had to be done for him and she had the foresight and understanding to make that happen,” Mrs. Hillenbrand said. “I give Wardlaw-Hartridge the credit.”
Hillenbrand has advanced through the first two qualifying stages. He was among more than 12,000 students to take a three-part exam and his score gave him the opportunity to be one of 1,000 students in the nation to take the national test. Hillenbrand, whose score on the national test ranked first in the New York Metropolitan Area, is excited to be competing for a chance to represent the U.S team.
“When I first entered the competition, I was not at all confident. I hadn’t done any chemistry problems in a while, and so I was worried. The study camp seemed a distant possibility to me,” Hillenbrand said. “Now, I’m extremely excited to go to the camp. I look forward to meeting new people who share a strong interest in chemistry. I’ll also enter into the competition in the next three years of high school as well.”
During the two-week intensive camp, Hillenbrand will receive college-level training with an emphasis on organic chemistry, through a series of lectures, problem-solving exercises, lab work and testing. Four students will be chosen to represent the U.S. at the International Chemistry Olympiad, where they will compete against peers from 70 nations for gold, silver and bronze medals. The U.S. will be hosting the event from July 21-30 at the University of Maryland in College Park.
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