MOUNTAINSIDE — Add one more teenager to the list of United States gold medalists. Mountainside resident Christopher Hillenbrand, a former student at The Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison who will be entering his sophomore year at Regis High School in New York, won a gold medal at the 44th International Chemistry Olympiad in College Park, Maryland in July.
Hillenbrand, the youngest of four U.S. students competing against peers from 73 nations, was one of only 34 students worldwide to achieve this elite level of recognition. He was the only U.S. team member to win the top prize and at 15 years of age, the youngest student to capture gold at this event.
“I feel really, really excited because at first when I took the local test, I never thought I would come this far,” Hillenbrand said. “It’s like a dream now. I’m in the middle of a dream, and I can’t wake up.”
Hillenbrand’s journey to gold began with a local test, which was taken by 14,000 U.S. students. A field of 1,000 students made the national cut and Hillenbrand then was selected as one of 20 finalists to attend an intensive two-week study camp at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in June. Hillenbrand received a smaller gold medal for being named as one of the six national finalists and then as one of the four U.S. team members, he won a larger gold medal for his performance at the Olympiad.
“I was very surprised by the medal,” Hillenbrand said. “I didn’t want to disappoint my mentors and my team members. This whole competition has been one stupendous surprise after another. I felt proud representing the U.S. and was motivated to do my best. I had been studying for a while and felt prepared.”
Hillenbrand received a strong foundation in science and mathematics while attending The Wardlaw-Hartridge School from third through eighth grade. He began taking high school math and science as a fourth-grader and regularly attended high school classes during his middle school years. He credited former Wardlaw-Hartridge Lower School Head Regina Bassoul-Restivo for advocating his advancement as a young boy and Wardlaw-Hartridge Middle School assistant Linda Kraynik for creating his complex academic schedule. Hillenbrand took Advanced Placement classes in calculus and chemistry and developed a special bond with Wardlaw-Hartridge high school chemistry teacher Roland Marionni of Scotch Plains.
“Mr. Marionni even allowed me to do experiments after school. I learned a lot by researching for experiments to do. Even though my schedule must have been a pain to create, Wardlaw’s faculty worked together so I could take advanced classes. I am grateful to them for my science and math education. They all contributed strongly toward my foundation in chemistry,” Hillenbrand said.
Learning does not stop in the classroom for Hillenbrand. Chemistry has become a favorite hobby and way of life for the brilliant 15-year-old.
“I love to read chemistry articles on Wikipedia and browse other sites for fun. I also do experiments in my laboratory on the back porch,” Hillenbrand said. “This has helped to improve my lab technique. Without pressure from school, I find that learning at home is enormously fun and exciting. I can research any topic at all and with the help of the Internet and inexpensive books that I can buy, I can access almost any information I need.”
The International Chemistry Olympiad experience was rewarding in so many ways for Hillenbrand.
“Bonding with my teammates helped me realize that I’ve come a long way since the days of my hesitant middle school experiments. There was so much to exchange. The competition helped me grow in so many ways. I can’t be more grateful to the mentors, science faculty, administration, my supportive parents, and all the people who have helped me to pursue my passion for science.
“I have established a network of friends and contacts, with whom I can share all my crazy chemical adventures, discuss theory and experimentation, and perhaps even publish some papers together in the future. I truly feel that I’ve become part of a community and a global one at that.”
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