International Biology Olympiad - 10 years later or: card game wisdom

In 2010, Cora Olpe participated in the Biology Olympiad. She got the chance to travel to South Korea, where she won a bronze medal. Ten years later, Cora works in stem cell research. In this article, she writes about the influence the Biology Olympiad had on her life and the advice she would give to aspiring scientists.

Cora and her doctoral thesis (Image: Cora Olpe)

After her years in England, Cora is excited to start her postdoc in Zurich. (Image: Cora Olpe)

Ten years ago, Cora travelled to the IBO in South Korea (Image: Biology Olympiad)

The Swiss team at the 2010 IBO (Image: Biology Olympiad)

As we were all mostly stuck at home due to a pandemic, there’s been plenty of time for reflection. And for tidying various cupboards. So it happened that my medal from the 2010 International Biology Olympiad fell into my hands. It looks really rather serious in its blue velvet case and I’ve barely scratched it, I guess it’s not exactly an object one uses a lot. What struck me was that these days, it’s been pretty much exactly 10 years since we were all in South Korea, admiring strange plastic dinosaurs, ship wharfs and perhaps also answering a biology question or two. So I thought: Why not take stock? What have I done and achieved since? And what advice do I have for aspiring participants?


Where it all began


It was 2009 and I was attending some minor event for talent fostering in my canton, Baselland. I can’t even remember who it was but someone mentioned to me that there was this competition, called Biology Olympiad, and they thought I should give it a go. So I went online and signed up. I wrote the first exam in our biology classroom at my high-school and could not believe my luck when a few weeks later an envelope from Bern arrived saying I ranked 9th overall and was invited to the Biology camp in Muntschemier. Now this week was quite something. About fifty of us where stuck in a military bunker for a week of intense biology from ecology, glycolysis to neurobiology. The food was, to be quite honest, rather poor. This prompted a few members of the group to elope to a nearby restaurant, which was quite a long hike away. During that week, my friends and I also coined the term “so chunsch nid nach Suedkorea” (“This is not how you’re getting to South Korea”), referring to our habit of playing Monopoly during lectures. A few of us really bonded during the camp.


After the fun was over, we got a few months to revise before the second exam, which some of us wrote in Bern. It was difficult, stressful. I did not have a good feeling about it at all. Yet a few weeks later, another envelope from Bern arrived. 7th this time. Now my ambition was sparked. I only needed 4th place to qualify for the IBO. I was so close. Perhaps I could actually do it. So I revised. Latin names of various taxa. Krebs cycle. C4 plants. Just before the final week of exams I attended a swimming training camp in Turkey. A bit of last minute exercise-induced neurogenesis could only be a good thing right? I flew home early just to attend the SBO week in Bern alongside 19 other finalists. Another bunker. Another pretty stressful experience. Every evening, after some 8 hours of practical exams, I called numerous friends and family, crying in a phone booth. It just was so difficult. I did not think it was going to happen. And then, the award ceremony. I was so nervous it felt like I was going to explode. My whole family was there. I really did not want to disappoint them, that would have been even worse than disappointing myself. They started at position 10. Then 9, 8, 7, 6, 5… Now the 4 lucky (or rather, smart) individuals that would represent Switzerland at the international competition. 4 not me. 3 not me. 2. Argh. And the winner… And they said my name. I really could not believe it. Yet it was happening. I was going to South Korea!


From Switzerland to South Korea to Cambridge – and back to Switzerland

Throughout the entire IBO I felt like I was in a dream. As far as my goals were concerned, my aim had been to get here, so there was no pressure. I enjoyed every minute of it. The excursions, the tomatoes in the fruit salad, the long nights full of deep conversations with new friends. It was all exciting and memorable. In the end I returned home with a Bronze medal, elated and perhaps with a slightly inflated ego. Everyone at the competition had talked about Oxbridge and the Ivy League. That had not been on my radar until that point. But now it felt like it was possible. So that fall I applied to the University of Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. Whether it was the IBO medal that opened the door to this prestigious institution only the admissions tutors can answer, but I am sure it was a facilitator. And so the next October I packed three large suitcases and took a flight over to the island that calls itself Great Britain.


I spent the next 4 years learning a lot about biology, especially biochemistry, and making lifelong friends. And I learnt how to cycle in 10 cm heels while wearing a gown. Because it felt like I wasn’t done with the magical bubble that is medieval Cambridge, I stayed for a second round, a PhD. I was fortunate to get a Wellcome Trust PhD studentship which meant I received generous funding and became part of an inspiring network of scientists. The PhD experience was not a walk in the park. I worked long hours and very much reached my limits. But holding my pink thesis in my hands now I do feel very proud and grateful. I passed last year and am currently finishing my publications before my next station: a Postdoc in Zurich! After 9 years in the UK it is time to move and I found a lab that I’m terribly excited to join. My goal is to work on how new brain cells are made in adults.


You can do more than one thing!


I’d like to share a thought with all you aspiring scientists which relates to the IBO and life beyond science. It is that of specialisation versus breadth and how I feel that choosing the latter has fuelled my scientific career in very unpredictable ways.


You see, while I’ve been interested in biology since roughly the age of 14, it has never been my only passion. Since I can remember I have practiced the piano for an hour daily and played various sports such as ice skating, ballet and swimming several times a week. While most people admired the breadth of my skills, there was one person in my life, whose voice of disapproval, up until now, resonates in my head every time I am not the best in the room at whatever activity I am participating in. It is my childhood piano teacher, a strong, rather intimidating Indian lady. She was convinced that I had enough talent to pursue a career in music and could not understand, why, instead of spending all my free time interpreting Beethoven, Bach and Chopin (my favourite), I would get so “distracted” by all my other interests, most importantly my love for swimming. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is what she would call me. At the age of around 12 years, this statement of hers made me cry bitter tears.


Later on, in high school, I focused on four areas: biology, swimming, piano and my Italian boyfriend. In each of these areas I was able to reach high standards: I won the Swiss Biology Olympiad and came back from the international competition with a bronze medal. I played Beethoven without sheet music. I was (and still am) fluent in Italian. But there was always that voice, repeating that horrible sentence. There were doubts in my mind that perhaps it would have been better to put all eggs into one basket and become a true master at something. And those doubts have never fully gone away, even now that I am a postdoc in stem cell biology at the University of Cambridge, UK, I still sometimes worry that I do too many things instead of focusing only on my experiments. I guess this is officially called “imposter-syndrome”. At the end of my PhD defence, one of my two examiners told me: “You should be a world expert in this, but you are not”. The same old criticism, phrased differently.


Then, a while ago I had a “eureka” moment during skiing - which is another one of my “distractions” that pulls me away from the lab for 1-2 weeks every year to race down the slopes with my brother, or to spend a week as a ski teacher with 12 year olds. What I realised is how intertwined my non-science interests are with my career. Here is an example: After the first year of my undergraduate degree, my ambitious self decided to spend a summer at MIT, doing stem cell research. I travelled to Boston knowing only a friend from the Biology Olympiad there. But then a uni friend put me in touch with a fellow swimming enthusiast, we met at the MIT pool, spent a number of fun evenings and weekends together. Said friend ended up teaching a student who then approached me for her final project in computer science at Imperial College London. I was able to provide an imaging problem for which the girl and her team found a solution and it is now being developed further in my institute. All because of two people’s passion for swimming.


That little story is just one of many instances in my life where one of my “side interests” has generated invaluable real-life connections with people who have later reappeared in my scientific life. Languages are another one such area where being able to speak to researchers in their native language (for example Italian or German) has generated an instant connection. In that way I have formed fantastic friendships.


In short, this is a shout out to all prospective and present biology students to cherish their non-scientific interests too. You just never know where the next connection is going to come from. You can always acquire more knowledge. However, you’ll never have as much free time as you do in high school and university (other than perhaps once you retire…). Use them wisely to grow your “life toolbox”. Every hobby teaches you lessons. Swimming gave me grit and perseverance. Piano taught me that there are no shortcuts to hard work. It will make you interdisciplinary, communicative, well-rounded humans and therefore more successful scientists. And it will spark the most unlikely collaborative projects. That’s what today’s world needs. Don’t be afraid of being a “jack of all trades.” After all, in the Swiss national card game “Jass”, the Jack is the highest card!


Dr. Cora Olpe grew up in Bottmingen, BL. In 2011 she moved to Cambridge, UK where she has been living since. Cora is fascinated by stem cells and their ability to renew tissues even in very old organisms. As a child, Cora fell in love with the colour pink. She celebrates this aspect of her personality by surrounding herself with pink objects, including pink labware and even a pink doctoral thesis. This summer she will return to Switzerland to start her postdoc with Professor Sebastian Jessberger at the University of Zurich. Cora is very excited to start researching brain stem cells, a topic that prominently features in a book she co-authored with her father in 2017.

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