February 2017 Solympiad Commentary 1

Today we’ll be going over some interesting questions from the most recent Solympiad.

  1. There are two amino acids which are especially rare in alpha helices, Proline and glycine. Proline has a rigid ring preventing rotation into optimal alpha helix form, while glycine has too much conformational freedom and bends the helix. The other options are fine in an alpha helix, so A, Glycine is the answer.


  1. The purpose of hemoglobin is to pick up oxygen when in an oxygen rich place near the lungs, and to release the oxygen in places lacking oxygen; if you want hemoglobin to be able to release oxygen well, it needs to have a low affinity. Assuming that hemoglobin is quite optimized for its purpose, we would think that large animals need more oxygen, so they would have hemoglobin with lower oxygen affinity. Similarly, warm blooded animals need more oxygen than cold blooded, as do high altitude animals compared to low altitude ones, so A, B, D are false and E is true. At high temperatures one acts more, so I suppose more oxygen would be desired at high temperatures, so B is also false. Therefore, E is the only true answer.


  1. Our dear Peter would use his lymphatic system in digestion with the lacteals being used for lipids, so we want to find the most lipid-y food. Upon seeing the “nachos and cheese” I thought of them as quite lipid-y and the answer is indeed A. One could perhaps remember this from thinking of lacteals, which would be used to help digest whole fat milk.


  1. Looking at the picture, one can see faint bands of lighter color in the NE – SW direction, so the picture shows a muscle. They do not look very orderly, so they are not skeletal. They are also not especially tapered and spindle shaped, so they are not smooth muscle. Therefore, they are cardiac muscle. If you look closely I think you can see intercalated disks, which confirms this conclusion. Thus, the answer is B.


  1. When I think of the vitamins, which is not too often, first I think that there are two main classes, fat soluble and water soluble. I remember the fat soluble ones, A,D,E,K by rearranging them to DAKE which means “only” in Japanese, as only DAKE are fat soluble. Then I think of how pregnant women take Vitamin B9 supplements to lessen the risk of neural tube defects, and how Vitamin B9, folic acid, is quite similar to Vitamin B12, cobalamin, in that both of them are used in nucleic acid metabolism. As Abijihit does not have a B9 deficiency, he could possibly have a B12 deficiency, and indeed the answer is A.


  1. Nervous tissue related things are made up of ectoderm, so it seems reasonable that the lens, which has a vaguely nervous related function would be made of ectoderm. Therefore, the correct answer is C.


  1. If in AP Euro one sets next to someone taking Anatomy and Physiology, invariably the subject of the humerus-scapula joint being of ball-and-socket type arises; one could also tell this from observing the existence of the arm-circle stretch. One’s arms about the elbow appear to be like hinges, so A seems true. Vertebrae do not resemble hinges, and neither do pelvises.


  1. The action potential propagates with a refractory period behind it, so if two action potentials meet, then there will be refractory periods on both sides, so the AP could not propagate any further in either direction. Therefore, the answer is B.


  1. Brown fat is used for non-shivering thermogenesis; one would expect hibernating animals to want to keep warm without shivering constantly, so it makes sense for them to have much brown fat. The energy of the heat takes away from the energy, which is the proton motive force, a force in the same way that EMF is, that could have been used to make ATP, so fewer ATP are produced. One would expect the intermembrane space to have fewer protons, and a higher pH. However, since the intermembrane space is essentially continuous through the cytosol (through protein channels such as porins), the pH will remain more or less constant. Therefore, the correct answer is D.


  1. Upon seeing a mention of smooth ER, which is indeed in the liver, one may be tempted towards the wrong answer, but smooth ER is also prevalent in lipid producing regions, such as the gonads (testosterone and estrogen and relatives are lipids); macrophages would not be expected to produce much proteins (with rough ER), but pancreatic cells would, so to produce insulin. Therefore, the correct answer is D.


  1. Using my “Calc 3 Guest Lecturer” skills, I can see that is related to the growth of prey, and thatis coefficient of xy, so it must have some relation to y, the number of predators. Furthermore, is positive so would show growth of predators, and when x = 0, dy/dt = –y, which shows that shows the decrease in predators, so D is the answer.


  1. Keystone species are important for having a large number of species, which means that they are essential for creating balance between species, and ensuring that one species does not dominate over the others, so D is true.


-Varkey Alumootil



How to Not Heat Fix Bacteria

Indeed, it’s dinner time for both the bear and the salmon, though in quite a different sense! If this sparked your memory (note: unlikely) but you still can’t seem to put your finger on where you’ve heard this before, you’re probably thinking of the opening lines of Campbell Chapter 41 (that is, if you’re reading the 8th/9th edition of Campbell. If you’re reading the 10th edition, then you have a glorious sea otter/crab duo). Credit to Varkey for this outlandishly specific, though entertaining, question!

Anyway, let’s hear some funny stories: for the Biochemistry/Microbiology practical, one of the tasks was to do a Gram stain on two different species of bacteria. This is pretty straightforward (though, under the pressure of a practical exam, not much seems straightforward, but anyway), as you just had to follow the procedure. Heat fix the bacteria onto a glass slide, stain it with crystal violet, then stain it with some iodine, then wash the excess off with distilled water. Next, wash the slide with decolorizer (basically alcohol); then, counterstain the bacteria with safranin (a type of red-pink stain). The hardest part, by far, was the heat fixing. Heat fixing basically consists of putting some bacteria onto a slide, waiting for the liquid to dry off, then holding the slide over the flame of a Bunsen burner for about a second or two. Now, Bunsen burners are super useful tools in a lab, but as they’re an open flame, they’re clearly quite dangerous. So while I’m holding the slide over the flame, my hand is beginning to feel quite hot. I brave through it, however, and proceed to put the other sample of bacteria (keep in mind we had to Gram stain two strains) on the other end of the slide. Now, clearly the end of the slide I have to hold was extremely hot, as I have just removed it from a flame. So, instead of making the sensible decision to wait for the slide to cool, I make the genius decision of holding that end with a Kimwipe (basically a tissue), thinking it’d shield my hand from the heat. Being the thin paper it was, it didn’t shield much of anything, and worse yet, as I put the other end of the slide into the flame, something starts smoking. The Kimwipe has caught on fire, and not the smolder so often seen in a burnt-out pile of firewood, but actual, well-developed flames. Instantly, I drop the slide and smash out the fire with a plastic weighing boat. I then immediately abandoned the entire Gram stain task and retreated to the much more appealing realm of enzyme kinetics, a task later on in the test.


Moral of the story: be careful when using Bunsen burners. Seriously.

-Thomas Xiong

The Three Steps of Biology

Hey everyone!

Before we start off with this next blog post, think about this quick question: what’s it dinnertime for?

For this somewhat short blog post, I wanted to share a bit about why I actually like biology so much. Like I said in the introductory blog post, I really didn’t like biology much during 9th grade. My subsequent warming-up to biology can, I believe, be described in three steps, parallel to the 3 steps of learning about cellular respiration, as follows:

  1. You learn about the aerobic respiration and that the electron transport chain (ETC) exists. In doing so, you learn of this magical molecule we call “ATP” and that the ETC produces way more ATP than does glycolysis or the citric acid cycle. At this point, you either hold ATP as some mystical vessel of energy worthy of worship or are severely annoyed at the simple lack of explanation of why the ETC produces so much ATP. Your teachers are probably not going to bother to explain it to you at this point.
  2. You go deeper into biology, perhaps by taking AP Bio or studying Campbell on your own. Finally, your teacher/textbook reveals the magic behind it all: chemiosmosis. You never thought life could be so devious in the way it fashioned an energy currency: so elegant; so simple. How long it took life to settle on this effective aerobic respiration is beyond you, but you are happy now that you can intuitively grasp just why the ETC works. At this point, I was essentially hooked on biology.
  3. Finally, perhaps when finished with Campbell and cramming for semifinals, or in that college biochem course, you flip through your copy of Lehninger or Pratt or what have you and delve into the details of ATP synthase, the 6 subunits of the catalytic knob, the purpose of the rod, the stator, and so on. The idea of iterating through rotations is the icing on the cake; the tight binding of the enzyme to ATP in order to make the hydrolysis/phosphorylation reaction readily reversible is beyond ingenious. Now, you’ve journeyed deep into life’s secrets, yet you know there will always be more to come.

That’s pretty much how it went for me. At first, biology seemed chock-full of memorization (difficult memorization at that, as one usually lacked intuitive understanding); then, the wonders of evolution reveal themselves; finally, the fundamental chemical processes that drive life are elucidated. Indeed, much like life, carried by processes that do not exist because they want to exist, but rather simply do as products of the laws of physics, of thermodynamics, biology is not a science that requires mind-numbing memorization for the sake of getting it done, attaining that shiny grade or USABO status or whatever, but rather is a science that is so fundamental to us all that we are obligated to inevitably learn of it, through whatever way it may be.


-Thomas Xiong

It’s All About the College, College, College!

Aloha, everyone! It’s ya boi dwu here, coming in for another blog post! And since now you know a little about me, I don’t have to write an intro this time, so let’s get right to it— colleges. I’ve gotten lots of questions on how to make the best out of your time (for those incoming freshman, sophomores, and maybe juniors too!) and how to start/continue the application process for all ya’ll seniors out there, from the point of view of an incoming college freshman.

Some quick advice about making the best out of your, trust me, VERY limited time during the high school years is that, while this may sound cliché and redundant, spend time and be good at the thing or things that YOU like, not the things that you think COLLEGES want to see. I can’t stress this enough, because you always see that one person who goes to some economics camp, and then starts a writing club, participates in student government, while at the same time performing like ten million hours of community service. Oh, and on top of that, they probably also do scientific research too. Well, let me tell you, this is the perfect time to use a quote from the highly esteemed and great DJ Khaled. “Don’t ever play yourself!!!!” Now for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s fine too. I’ll explain in English. Please, please do not try to pad your resume with lots of high sounding clubs that you’re just doing for colleges. And that applies for everything else too. I only did 3 clubs, and those were mostly all related to something I really enjoyed doing: biology. And I’ve found that, for me, it worked pretty well. But all of you underclassmen *freshman cough cough* might be asking me “But what if I don’t know what I really like?” That’s completely fine. All you have to do is explore. At the beginning of high school, participate in AS MANY activities as possible to find your interests. Drop all of the rest—it doesn’t matter if you’re not a 2-time karate champion or a professional stock trader, unless you truly love doing those things. Just do what you love, and kick butt at it. Be the best (another DJ Khaled quote, see isn’t he inspirational?). And as daunting as it seems, being good at something you love isn’t that difficult, because you’ll naturally do something that you like.

Okay, so now it’s time for my advice on the actual college app. There’s not that much I can say about this that you’ll find useful—most of it is pretty self-explanatory. But, although my essay writing skills were definitely not my strongest points, I will tell you this: in your essays, SHOW DON’T TELL. And analyze deeper into what you are writing about and how you changed or learned through it. Example: I’ve read lots of essays about love ones becoming ill (not saying this is a good or bad topic, nor am I saying you should use this topic, it was just the most convenient example that popped into my head to use). Don’t just talk about what happened, and how it happened. Spend most of the essay talking about how this affected you in a deeper level, how you changed your mindset on life because, oh, I don’t know, you had to take over a lot more responsibilities or saw all the pain that they were going through. And again, show yourself changing, don’t just tell it to the readers. Okay, that’s all the advice I have on that. Next, but most important (and directed to everybody, 9th-12th grade).

My thoughts on college choice. It’s a big topic. I know. Parents play a big role in where you eventually apply and choose to go. And everyone seems to want to go to the “big name” colleges. Harvard. Yale. Princeton. Stanford. MIT. Etc. etc. I heard people come up with their own rankings or blindly follow other sources (I’m looking at you, US News and Report and Forbes). While these rankings may affect your final choice of which colleges you want to apply to, remember that it’s about YOUR preferences and feelings. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Look at what the colleges have to offer you in terms of social life, academic flexibility, and other things. Form your opinions of these facts, not other people’s opinions, and last but not least, if you can, take a college tour to the one’s you’ve narrowed down. Sometimes, when you arrive, you’ll get a “meh” feeling, but other times, you’ll feel right at home. Just follow your gut. It’s never wrong. Don’t let your judgement get clouded by anything else. You alone should choose your school, not anyone else (oh course you can get advice from others, but take those opinions with mild skepticism always). Don’t worry, because although it may seem to you as a never ending tunnel of darkness, eventually everything will turn out for the best, you have my word.

One last thing.

Don’t ever play yourself.

Dwu out.   

Our Third Writer!

Hey guys! This blog post is coming from ya boi dwuuuuu… jk I’m usually really informal with how I talk (ask Thomas, he’ll tell you all about it, trust me :D), but I’ll try to keep it a bit more formal this time. Let’s start with an introduction, shall we?


My name is David Wu, but ya’ll can call me dwu, a nickname I go by. Anyways, I’m a tier 2 tutor for SoL, and your third blogger, along with Varkey and Thomas (although I’m not as good at bio as they are sad lifeeee). I was a USABO camper for two years, once in 2015 and once in 2016. What’s unique about me compared to the others is that I’m the research nerd. There’s just something about the blinding fluorescent lights, that acrid smell of beta-mercaptoethanol that makes your nose shrivel up, and the feeling of despair when you mess up on step 79 of an 80 step protocol that’s taken a week to do and have to start all over again for the third time that makes me want to come back for more!!!! (I’m absolutely not salty about the last one, I swear). LOL. But all sarcasm aside, I truly do have a soft spot for research, and while I don’t think I’ll be dedicating the rest of my life to it, I definitely want to continue researching for the foreseeable future. And in this blog post, I’m going to tell you how YOU, my fellow biology lovers, can get into this amazing field.

Okay, first of all, comes picking a topic that you’re interested in. Having done four projects each on different things (pancreatic cancer, diabetic stroke, exosomes, and ovarian cancer chemotherapy resistance), what I can say is that I found some of the topics that I did much more interesting that I originally thought. Here are my two cents on this part of research: it’s going to be extremely difficult to convince a professor to allow you to conduct research, for several reasons, which are: 1. You’re going to be a HUGE time sink. Just like a plant’s sugar sink, which it needs to supply with lots of hard to make photosynthates (okay I get it, bad biology analogy, but what can I say, I’m a nerd at heart), you will cost tons of time to train and get familiar with that lab’s techniques and protocols, valuable time that could be used gathering sought-after data for grants and papers. Sorry to break your hearts, but you’re going to be a pain in butt that’s not worth the professor’s time and money. Therefore, when you apply for an internship, please BE SURE to send your app to as many professors as possible (I like to say that for every 50 emails you send, you get maybe one response, which says no), and try not to be too picky with the specific research that each one is doing. At this point, you really don’t get to choose your topic. And send those apps early. Like really early. Like close to 8 months before you want to come in, to give professors enough time to get ready for your arrival. Also, another quick tip: I recommend that you apply to college programs that specifically give high schoolers a chance to perform research, for example, RSI for juniors or HSHSP and other programs like that. That way, if you get in, you don’t have to go through emailing like ten million people (and trust me, it’s annoying as crap). Oh, and another thing: most local colleges will have some type of research program as well, so dig around and try to see if you can get into one of those. Otherwise, just keep sending those emails and hope for the best!

Now, if you’re lucky enough to actually land a position at a lab, the first thing you want to do is to pat yourself on the back! Congratulations! You set yourself apart from the others, and now have this great opportunity ahead of you. However, you’ll quickly learn a couple of things. First of all, experiments take a crap ton of time and effort, and required that you follow the protocol to the MOST minute of details. Add 1 microliter (that’s about the size of a pinhead) too much or too little and you mess up the entire thing. It’s going to suck, and you’re going to want to quit sometimes (well, at least I did). But here’s the thing you need to understand. An old mentor of mine always said “Your experiments will fail 99% percent of the time.” So even if you perform everything perfectly, the odds are against you to get the desired result. And that’s something that you’ll just have to deal with. But, when you do make that breakthrough, it makes the feeling of accomplishment that much better.

Overall, for me, I just love the idea that I can play a role at the forefront of the scientific field, albeit a small one. Every time I make a discovery, the excitement that what I’m looking at has never been seen before, something completely new, knowledge to be added to the vast troves of information we have, is all I need to make all of the long nights, failed experiments, and monotonous work worth it.

If you have any questions about how to get research opportunities or need someone to guide you in your research, paper writing, or anything else, please feel free to let me know by emailing dwu937@gmail.com. Stay curious, my friends, and you may one day change the world in unimaginable ways.

Dwu out.

Study Tips! Again!

Since it’s fairly early in the year, I thought it’d be a good idea to start off with some general studying advice for USABO! Though these have definitely been covered somewhat before (check earlier blog posts), I think it’s essential to know how to tackle bio. As you well know, biology is understandably vast. Time management, therefore, is critical to success for USABO and just getting the most enjoyment out of biology in general.

If you don’t want to read the rest of this blog post because it’s long, read this: study in a manner most efficient for you, but always look to improve; most importantly, aim for the correct scope and do not delve too deeply into any one field*. However, if you don’t want to read it because you’re already a biology master like Yilun Du, then I salute you.

For any subject, I personally learn most effectively when I learn all the fields (e.g. cell bio, ecology, anatomy) at a consistently high, but not terribly deep, level at first. For biology, this translates to the best advice anyone could give you: read Campbell Biology. 8th, 9th, or 10th edition is fine; just read it. Campbell gives such a succinct yet powerful insight into biology, and it is an excellent resource for anyone completely new to bio (like I basically was), and is a potent review source for anyone who started with other methods (AP Biology, perhaps).

How should you read Campbell? There are probably more ways of studying Campbell than there are chapters in Campbell, but here are some common variants:

  1.       Read straight through Campbell, perhaps a chapter a day or every two days (or some other time interval you determine). Strive to gain the best understanding you can without dwelling terribly long on one paragraph or chapter. After reading through once, it’s generally beneficial to read it through again once or twice before the exams. If done correctly, you shouldn’t need to extensively read Campbell 5 or 6 (or whatever ridiculous number some people claim) to gain a perfectly sufficient understanding.
  2.       Read through each chapter of Campbell three times (before moving on to the next chapter): the first, to get a broad grasp of the situation; the second, to master (to the best of your ability) the concepts present; the third, to take notes on diagrams and concepts drawn mostly from your memory to ensure you understand the concept. Clearly, these three readings require different amounts of time. The first reading is pretty succinct, while the second is definitely the longest, and the third depends on how successfully you remember the concepts. I personally used this method, and I think it’s awesome, but remember to do what works best for you!
  3.       Basically speed read Campbell the first time to get a super broad understanding, then proceed to reread Campbell, striving for more depth each time. This is probably where the high rereading numbers come about, and I don’t really recommend this, but hey, it could work!

Some general tips for studying Campbell (or most any other biology textbook):

  1.       Pay attention to diagrams. This is extremely, extremely important. You won’t have a fun time on tests by just memorizing the nice bolded words in each chapter. It is crucial to have a concise visualization in your mind. Moreover, pay much attention to diagrams of important molecules. There has been a boat load of questions that require you to understand what type/which specific molecule is being pictured.
  2.       Don’t get complacent while reading. If understanding becomes easy, challenge yourself. Memorize more. Connect to more topics.
  3.       If a concept seems ambiguous/shady, look it up before proceeding! Learning wrong concepts is arguably worse than not learning them in the first place.

Finally, some general tips how to prepare for USABO (yes, apart from Campbell):

  1.       Biology requires a massive amount of problem solving. If you don’t have much background in math/logic/computer science, it would definitely be to your benefit to dabble in it a bit for USABO! For more, learning more competition-esque math helped me a huge amount.
  2.       Do as many past tests as you can get your hands on, but don’t waste all of them in one go. This is pretty self-explanatory, but never underestimate how important taking practice tests is to your actual score.
  3.       On tests, don’t stress out, don’t freak out if you can’t remember something right away, and learn (beforehand) how to process a large amount of information quickly.

These tips are much easier said than done, yet they’re all so helpful to actually implement. Don’t burden yourself too much, but do your best to put these into action.

Thanks for reading, and good luck to everyone this year! It’ll be great.

~ Thomas Xiong

*For solely USABO purposes; if you love the field, definitely go for it!

Presenting our new writers!

Varun Mangalick:

I’d like to welcome our new blog writers, Thomas Xiong and Varkey Alumootil! These two both proudly represented the USA at the 2016 International Biology Olympiad, and have a ton of stories to share. I look forward to reading along and learning from them along with all of you!

Varkey Alumootil:

Hello everyone. I’m Varkey, and this year I’ll be one of the main writers for this blog. Currently, I’m a senior, and this will be my second year doing USABO. This year I made it to IBO and got a silver medal. Biology is pretty nice in general, and the competitions are pretty fun. I think I first learnt about biology competitions from sort of eavesdropping on an 2013 IBO competitor talking about them, but I only started doing the competitions quite a bit later. It’ll be pretty nice to write blog posts, as my biology experience has been quite unusual and eventful.

Thomas Xiong:

Hey everyone! I’m Thomas, and I’ll be one of the main blog writers this year. I’m currently a senior, and this year will be my third year of doing USABO. This year I made it to IBO and a got gold medal. Biology has been a super fun journey overall, even apart from the competitions. Interestingly enough, I first really learned biology in my 9th grade class but didn’t enjoy it much. I distinctly remember almost everything being lots of memorization (sound familiar?) and the confusing terms of plant phylogeny and the cell cycle. However, after a friend suggested I try USABO the following summer, I was pretty much hooked on bio. I’m actually really excited to write blog posts throughout the year as I’ve racked up quite a few interesting bio stories, and I hope you guys enjoy it as well.

Though it may have been slightly inactive for the past few months, Study of Life is back up and running! Make sure to check out the resources tab where you’ll find some really nice handouts, most of which go beyond Campbell-level bio (due to some unfortunate circumstances, the wiki has retired 😦 ). Tutoring is also an excellent option for anyone looking to have a comprehensive rundown of difficult topics or answers to confusing questions!

Just like before, blog posts will be of a few different types. Some may be study tips/guides, others may be textbook/study material recommendations, and others may simply be interesting bio stories or topics. We’re also looking forward to having the Q&A back throughout the year and likely more often before USABO exams.

Hope you all are looking forward to the cool new blog posts for this upcoming year! 😀


Q&A Responses (part 4)

Here’s the next set of Q&A responses! The question form is still open, but with how many questions are in queue and all the craziness of Semifinals week, answers may be a bit delayed.

  • To your knowledge, have there been any significant changes to the semifinal exam in recent years?
      • Varun: I haven’t seen too much change in recent years, but as a general trend, I’ve noticed the tests tend to get more analytical in nature and less based on simply knowing facts. Accordingly, I think the last 5-6 years’ semis will be better than the first few, but the early tests are nice for info review.
      • Abhijit: I don’t believe so, but the style of questions has varied from year to year. Based on this year’s Open Exam, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Semifinal Exam changed this year.
      • Yilun: The style of the Semifinal exam hasn’t really changed too much(except for the massive free response portion last year). Given how badly this years open has turned out, I think they will probably keep a similar Semifinals exam style as previous year.
  • What is the best way to memorize systematics? I know many people say not to study it (cough Varun xD), but I want to have at least solid background knowledge.
    I’m having trouble with the taxonomy section of Campbell & Reece. How did you study it? Are there any diagrams or charts that you found helpful in explaining the relationships between the various classifications of organisms?
    How do you guys learn taxonomy and classification stuff??!?
      • Abhijit: I really liked the end-of-chapter tables. I have some Quizlet sets that might be helpful (User ID: BeanDelphiki), but some of them might be incomplete. Beyond that, I’d suggest just doing the problems from past IBOs, since they tend to be very broad in scope, thus forcing you to remember a lot of the material.
      • Varun: This is a kind of general tip for memorizing. I find that if I write down what I need to memorize and read through it out loud (quietly) while pacing around, I remember it well. It makes me look a bit crazy, but I wouldn’t be doing USABO if I cared about that 😉
      • Yilun: I reread the taxonomy chapters a lot (at least 8 times) and would come back to the chapters at night and try to remember everything. I found the taxonomy in general though to be really hard to learn, and I would have to review it before every single exam. Diagramwise, I found all the diagrams in Campbell’s to be useful and sometimes I tried to replicate them.
  • What were your open scores this year?
      • Varun: 38.34
      • Yilun: 39
      • Abhijit: 35.83
  • How much overlap is there between semis and open questions? (i.e., would it be worthwhile to go back and do open tests if we’ve made semis?)
      • Varun: Semifinal questions are generally a step up, though Open questions are still good practice if you have no semis left. However, I’d personally advise you don’t spend so much time on practice tests such that you run out of semis this early, and rather spend the time between tests really reading up on the chapters you have difficulty with/the concepts from tests you just didn’t get.
      • Abhijit: I don’t think it’s worth doing more open tests unless you made Semis by a really low margin (and even then). There are lots of old Semis and even more old IBOs, so if you think you’ve already learned the material in Campbell’s at a decent level, I’d start running through problems and relearning the concepts from the problems that you miss.
      • Yilun: In my opinion, the open and semi-exams are pretty similar with the harder questions on the open approximately the same difficulty as the easier questions on the semi. In addition, I have seen questions from past opens appear in the semis. I personally studied opens but I would have to agree with Varun and Abhijit to first study of the past semis and perhaps past IBOs.
  • A lot of exams have questions about specific amino acids. Beyond remembering which are nonpolar, polar, etc, how far in detail should one go (for time crunch; ideally study everything haha)
    Regarding proteins and amino acids, would it be necessary for me to memorize all 20 of them and know their components, structure, functions, etc.?
      • Abhijit: I never actually learned side chains, but knowing properties is important, and I suppose if you learn the properties enough, you end up being able to intuit the side chains. I guess you can approach it from two angles – either learn the side chains and use chemistry to figure out the properties, or learn the properties and use chemistry to figure out the side chains.
      • Varun: I agree with Abhijit in that there’s two different ways to approach this. Personally, I just used an amino acid structure quiz to learn the structures. At this point, I could intuit out properties just from what I remembered of the structures. If you don’t have time to memorize the structures, I think the most important properties to know are just what you described: knowing polarity and charge.
      • Yilun: I agree with both Varun and Abhijit that there are several ways to approach the amino acids. Personally, I found just memorizing the general structures to easier. Ideally, though you don’t need to know how to draw everything, you should know for example to tyrosine has a benzene ring with a hydroxyl group on it. The most properties, as Varun has mentioned, are probably polarity and charge and you can usually intuit everything else. If you really want to be completely sure you have everything, you can also go through a biochemistry textbook.
  • How would you tackle the multiple multiple choice problems on part B of the test?
      • Varun: I would tackle these just regular MC questions, except I would tread a bit more carefully. Just don’t be too quick to rule something out or choose something as right. These seem really scary, but one thing to keep in mind is, it’s pretty easy to get partial credit on these, even though getting full points on them is VERY difficult.
      • Abhijit: Seconded – because of the relative point weightage and inherent difficulty of the multiple answer format, I’d spend lots of time and effort on these. There are good practice problems from past IBOs (esp. recent ones).
      • Yilun: Thirded (Is that a word?), I would tackle them similarly to normal multiple choice questions. I would pay attention to details and I tend to be rather aggressive on these questions in that if anything sounds like it could be true, I would say that it was true.
  • “Is the training camp cutoff SOLely based on the score for semifinalist exam, or does it include the score on the open exam as well?
      • Varun: It only counts your semifinal score. So while your open score gives you a good indication of where you lie, as long as you pass, you have just as good a chance as every other semifinalist. (BTW, I see what you did there :D)
  • Do you guys ever listen to music while studying or is that a huge mistake?
    • Varun: I personally only listen to music while doing problem solving type tasks like math or programming. For reading-heavy things like biology, I don’t listen to music, though that’s just me.
    • Abhijit: I do. Mainly instrumental or non-English, so that it doesn’t interfere with the reading though (then again, most of what I listen to is instrumental/non-English, so it might just be a biased sample pool).
    • Yilun: I usually listen to music when I reading biology. Music allows me to read for longer periods of time though sometimes it can also be really distracting. I like to listen to music such as Taylor Swift.

Thanks again, and here’s the question form!

Q&A Responses (part 3)

The next set of questions is up! As before, the form is linked below if you have anything else you’d like to ask.

  • How do you find the motivation to read through all of Campbell so many times?
    How do you stay so dedicated while studying?
      • Yilun: I always found Campbell to be really interesting and I wanted to learn all the tidbits in it.
      • Varun: When I first read Campbell, I really didn’t get everything. A lot of the more confusing parts and molecular diagrams thoroughly confused me, so I skimmed passed them. However, with each additional time I read through the book, my base understanding grew my a bit, and I could
      • Abhijit: Honestly, I found Campbell boring after the first time reading it. Actually, I found most of it boring the first time too :P. I learned a lot by doing past problems, since I found those way more interesting, and thus ended up reading in chunks relevant to the problems that I missed. When I did have to read the book cold, I usually only did certain important chapters (there are parts of the book that I’ve only read once and others that I’ve read >6 times, looking at you metabolism).
  • What tips do you have on retaining information?
      • Abhijit: What I used to do is read a chapter, take notes without looking at the chapter, and then compare to see if I missed anything. By being forced to write notes in my own words without reading the chapter, I was able to learn it well. I also made quizlets that I’d do once or twice each (same idea as the notes, but more permanent).
      • Varun: I found I retained things by rereading a lot and taking tests between. When I came across something I didn’t know in a test, if I found it on a subsequent readthrough, I’d remember it for sure! In addition, I’ve found that reading more advanced textbooks tends to help, as I usually don’t remember many of the details in these books, but they discuss and use concepts at Campbell’s level so much more that they tend to stick well.
  • What grade are you guys in?
      • Varun: We are all seniors this year (so we were juniors during the year in which we made IBO)
  • What things/topics should we be completely confident with?
    What are some things that we should definitely memorize for the exam?
    • Yilun: Each person has their own topics (categories) in which they are the best in. Nobody is completely confident in every subject. That being said, I believe its important to be very confident in all of Campbell’s. In addition, try to become very confident with molecular biology including common techniques and interpreting data. In addition, get very confident with the genetics question (which IMO are the easiest points in the tests to prepare for).
    • Varun: I’d agree, definitely know all of Campbell’s (minus systematics)! If you’ve already read through the whole book and want to know what chapters are best to review, I’d recommend these chapters: 5, 6, 9, 10, 13-18, 20, 29-30, 35-39, 41-45, and 48-51. These chapters (which I’ve linked on previous posts) relevant and/or reasonably difficult. However, if you haven’t read other chapters (like ecology), make sure to read them at least once!


  • What do you guys want to be when you grow up?
      • Varun: That’s a great question that I’m still trying to figure out the answer to, but right now, I think I want to be a professor and conduct computational biology research.
      • Abhijit: I’m planning to major in chemistry (blasphemous, I know) and minor in either mathematics or computer science. Within chemistry, I’m leaning towards organic chemistry, but I’m not really sure.
      • Yilun: Similar to Varun, I haven’t really figured out exactly what I want to do. As of now, I am interested in hopefully majoring in bioengineering and perhaps going into research afterwards.
  • What do you guys do outside of the USABO?
      • Varun: Lots of random stuff including dance, photography, competitive math, Science Olympiad, singing, writing (check out my book on amazon :D), ping pong, etc.
      • Yilun: A lot of random things such as: Dota 2, labwork, Science Bowl, piano, ping pong, and a lot more randomness
      • Abhijit: Lots of other academic competitions, flash games, anime, cooking, etc.
  • Have you participated in any other Olympiad?
      • Varun: I was completely obsessed with math in 7th-9th grade, which culminated with participating in USAJMO. While I’ve since switched to bio, I still do lots of math competitions for fun. In addition, I dabbled in physics this year, but don’t worry, bio is still my true love
      • Yilun: I participated in the physics and computing olympiad last year and have participated in the math olympiad in the past few years. I am trying the chemistry olympiad this year.
      • Abhijit: With the exception of Astronomy, I’ve done pretty much every Olympiad with varying degrees of seriousness for the past three years. I focused on USNCO my freshman and junior years, USABO my sophomore years, NACLO (linguistics, which is basically pure logic/thinking) my junior and senior years, and math my senior year. Definitely worth it 😀
  • What should my study schedule look like if I want to do really well on the USABO next year?
      • Varun: To avoid burnout, I’d focus on trying to read 5 chapters of Campbell’s a week. That doesn’t mean you have to read every day, but if you take a break, make sure to catch up. I would estimate this at 10-15 hours of studying a week. If you started this now (and continued until you got through Campbell’s 3 ish times), I think you’d be in a great position. In addition, you’d probably have some time to delve into some more advanced texts in the units where you feel weakest.
      • Abhijit: I’d sign up for as many biology and science competitions as possible (University of Toronto National Biology Competition, Solympiads, Science Bowl, Quiz Bowl, Science Olympiad, etc.) and try to get a position as a lab assistant (research works too, but I learned the most general biochemistry knowledge when I wasn’t actively working on a project). I’d second Varun’s study schedule, but what helped me the most was repeated exposure and multiple cram sessions spaced a few months apart. This is also fun because doing USABO will help you in the other competitions, which will then help you in USABO, so you see a positive feedback chain of success.
      • Yilun: I’d agree with both Abhijit and Varun’s advice. Personally, I found that immersing myself into biology really helped me learn a lot. Doing large numbers of competitions also really helps cement stuff together and being in a lab really helps on the lab questions. Study schedule-wise I completely agree with Varun with additional hours per week if you are not bored.
  • This is my first time taking the semifinal exam, and I wonder if there was a particular section on which you thought pacing/finishing on time was an issue?
    • Abhijit: The semifinal exam is just given to you in one block, so it’s your job to pace yourself through the entire thing. Unless you’re remarkably talented or prepared, you will inevitably run out of time somewhere. Thus, the section you run out of time on is the section that you put the least time towards. I would suggest spending more time on Parts B and C (in that order) and less time on Part A, just because of the relative point weightages. If it comes to it, speedrun on Part A to ensure that you can put your full effort and knowledge towards answering Parts B and C.
    • Yilun: Generally, I believe the semifinals exam has pretty good timing and you should be able to finish anything. That said, if you find yourself running low on time, try to get the questions in Part B especially as they tend to be longer/worth more points.
    • Varun: I generally try to proceed at a fast, but comfortable pace and adjust speed accordingly so I’ll end just about on time. To figure out where I “should” be at a certain point, I just figured out during practice tests how long it took me to finish the various sections.

Thanks again, and here’s the question form!

Q&A Responses (part 2)

Thanks everyone for continuing to participate in the Q&A! Since the last post, we’ve received a bunch more questions, so we will have at least one more post after this. Once again, we’ll link the question form at the bottom of this post, so if you have more questions, feel free to ask away!

  • How much time do you study bio daily? Is it a steady habit of studying to get all this info in or is it just really good cramming?
    How intensely did you prepare for the USABO?
    How long did you prepare for the USABO?
    What was your typical study schedule like?
    Do you suggest just reading through Campbell, taking notes along the way, or some other method of studying?
      • Varun: I’d recommend you look at the IBO Study Stories blog posts, as have some good info on how we studied. However, here’s some more detail about my study schedule in particular: My most regular studying was in 10th grade. In this time, I read about 1 chapter a day, and would usually set aside 1-2 hours for this every evening. However, both that year (and in 11th grade), I crammed pretty hard, re-reading Campbell’s and taking a bunch of practice semis in a bit under two weeks. I didn’t really like taking notes, so I just reread a bunch, but if you can take fast and effective notes, go for it! Another interesting note, I’ve noticed that each year that I’ve done USABO (10th to 12th), my overall understanding of difficult concepts has increased, partially because I’ve spaced out studying enough to integrate what I learn into a more comprehensive framework. So while cramming is good, make sure you do some more long term studying.
      • Yilun: I started preparing for USABO rather late and I pretty much started the Winter Break of junior year. However, once I started preparing, I would spend many hours studying for biology( pretty much all the hours of Christmas break). I also tried to be very focused when I studied and would to recall everything I learned every hour or so and see how everything connected. I would record key words down on paper and then after a couple days return to the paper and see if I remembered the words and how they connected. I also reread Campbell’s several times. Although I would say that I didn’t have a very good daily study schedule, I did commit very large chunks of days(often upwards of 6 hours a day) to reading Campbell’s or reading biology in general(kind of “Cramming”). One thing I found helpful when I was studying was the background I had in biology before self-studying which helped me remember all the new information I had learned and I think it might be a good idea if you are completely new to biology to not cram Campbell’s but try to focus on the major points before cramming everything.
      • Abhijit: I didn’t really have any semblance of a regular study schedule for most of the year. However, I did (and do) enough science competitions that I’m exposed to many of the concepts fairly often, and my studying ends up being the aggregate of repeated cram sessions. My sophomore year (the first year I did the competition seriously and the first year I made camp) I started studying seriously after learning that I made camp, and took advantage of my school’s early Spring Break to read through Campbell’s and – as at that time the past semifinal exams had not been released – run through some past IBO theoretical papers. The latter were very helpful for me, as they helped me improve my problem-solving and learn the material at the same time. As far as reading goes, I think I mentioned this in a different Q&A, but I would read a chapter in its entirety and then take notes. Doing so forced me to summarize and learn the material in my own words and ensure that I wasn’t simply a medium for text flow between the book and my notes (I never actually read the notes afterwards – it was just so I could learn the material). That being said, everyone has their own styles, so I would take answers with many grains of salt.
  • Can I see those twist tie sculptures you mentioned in your bio from 2013 Finals?
      • Varun: The first picture is of a ~3.5 foot long dinosaur. The second is of a ~2 foot tall kangaroo (complete with baby in pouch). These were basically my obsession in middle school!
  • How do you deal with the anxiety leading up to tests/results/anything stressful in general?
      • Varun: I think the best way to deal with these sorts of things are to take care of yourself and to get involved with lots of things. Regarding the first point: I think the single most important thing you can do to benefit your performance is to make sure you’re in good testing condition. For me, this means getting a good night’s sleep, eating a great breakfast, bringing some lychee candy, walking around the school a bit before the test, taking a pre-emptive bathroom break, etc. If I had the mindset that every last thing I don’t study WILL show up on the test, and I’m screwed if I don’t keep cramming nonstop, then I’d be quite a bit more stressed. Understand that you don’t need to ace any test at any level of USABO or IBO. There’s only so much you study, so do the best you can, and don’t stress about trying to memorize the world. Regarding the second point: I’m involved in Science Olympiad, competitive math, and a bunch of other activities, so I almost always have something else to redirect my attention to. This has helped me stress less about each individual competition (including USABO!)
      • Yilun: I’m honestly pretty awful at dealing with anxiety but I like to start doing other things (such as playing DOTA).
      • Abhijit: Personally, I study as if I know nothing (usually a good assumption) and walk into the test assuming (read: pretending) that I know everything. While you shouldn’t get carried away, approaching contests/competitions with confidence and pluck is pretty useful
  • I know I got screwed on the evolution and phylogenetics on the open exam, but I want to see my breakdown for the other questions. Is it possible to see how much I got in each content category so I can improve for semis?
      • Varun: That information isn’t released by CEE (and neither is the test), so unfortunately, that isn’t something any of us can find out. I’d advise you just see how you do on old tests, as (hopefully) your experience will be reasonably similar.
      • Yilun: Unfortunately, it’s not possible to access a breakdown of your content scores. However, if you make camp, you will see a content breakdown of what you missed in the semifinals exam.
  • Could you explain the formatting of the semifinal exam, specifically the multiple T/F and essays? Also what are some good strategies to use when taking the semifinal exam that are unique from most other exams?
    • Yilun: Last year, there were no multiple T/F exams in semifinals. However, Part B questions often have multiple correct choices. One thing to keep in note is that the semifinals are just like any other exams so you should definitely use test-taking strategies on it (such as paying attention to strong words such as NEVER). Everybody struggles with Part C, so just try your best a maximizing your points( such as stating a blatantly wrong answer to the first part and then using that answer to get the second and third parts).
    • Varun: Stay calm. Use your intuition. If you don’t know something, KEEP GOING! On second thought, these aren’t that unique, but people (myself included) get caught up in the memorization craze and freak out when they reach something they don’t know.

Thanks again, and here’s the question form!