Physics students compete overseas in Kutaisi, Georgia

Senior Samvit Das (center back) and Senior David Zhang (center left) prepare for competition in Georgia with Team USA.

Taylor Murray | The Chronicle

Two Mason students bring home the gold for Team USA from the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA).

On August 14, seniors Samvit Das and David Zhang traveled to Kutaisi in the country of Georgia to represent Team USA at IOAA. The olympiad took place over eight days and consisted of two four-hour exams: one exam about theoretical astrophysics and one math-based exam that tested the students on their ability to analyze data about the stars and related physics.

There was also a two-part observational competition about the night sky. One part took place at night when the competitors set up a telescope and answered questions about the stars. The other part was a paper and pencil test over different celestial bodies.

 Aside from studying and competing, the participants were also given the opportunity to meet and interact with students from all over the world on trips throughout the countryside and Georgian caves. While Das and Zhang’s team was comprised of eight kids from all over the USA, there were 45 countries represented in the overall competition.

“I made friends with a lot of people from other countries, like Canada and the UK,” Zhang said. “Our guide was from Georgia, and I think a lot of us became pretty good friends with him.”

Team USA returned to the country with a total of 10 medals: four bronze, three silver and three gold. Das and Zhang were each responsible for a gold medal, which would not have been possible had it not been for hours of diligent studying. The two have spent years independently researching astrophysics and astronomy.

“A lot of my motivation comes from seeing my friends do well in Science Olympiad or other competitions, like Astronomy Olympiad,” Das said. “They really pushed me to do more.”

Das was intrigued by physics from the start. He found his calling in physics through a volume of Angry Birds: Furious Forces when he was 8, and his interest only built from there. In a short autobiography for the team, Das wrote that he has been fascinated by physics from a young age.

“Physics has always been with me,” Das said. “But I think I got into competitive physics when I joined Science Olympiad back in eighth grade. [Science Olympiad] was the first time I actually took competitive tests for physics and learned physics for more than just my enjoyment.”

Zhang, on the other hand, has been going to planetariums and watching the stars since he was little. He has always been captivated by astronomy, and that has carried on throughout his life. Between astronomy events, summer camps, and training calls from the team’s coaches, Zhang spent nearly his whole summer diving into astronomy and preparing for IOAA. Zhang said that he and his friends found different practice exams to test their knowledge of different topics that would be featured at IOAA.

“I think it’s a lot of fun,” Zhang said. “I really enjoy studying and learning more about different things, and there’s also a social aspect because I do a lot of [studying with friends].”

Das said that despite his enormous achievements in academics, the most valuable thing that he got out of the experience was making international connections and bonding with people of different backgrounds over a common interest.

“That was probably the most memorable thing, not even winning medals there, but just getting to hang out with people from all over the country, even the whole world, who are also interested in astronomy and astrophysics,” Das said.

After participating in IOAA, Zhang is heavily considering a career in physics due to his success as a student. Das said that he also is probably going to pursue a job in physics research. Additionally, he is looking forward to mentoring other students in similar fields.

“Going to college is obviously the most important thing on my mind right now,” Das said. “Once I get there I’d definitely be open to mentoring people, whether that be at Mason or anywhere else, [in] astronomy and astrophysics or just Physics Olympiad in general.”

The two have made many strong bonds through the science programs that they have dedicated their last six years to. From middle school Science Olympiad to the prestigious competition that is IAOO, Das and Zhang have been devoted to learning more about their passion for nearly a third of their lives. This wouldn’t have been possible if not for the social network that they have built.

“Once you find something that you’re passionate about, finding a good community and people to connect to is definitely an essential part of getting really good at something,” Zhang said. “Just making connections with people and seeing how other people are tackling different challenges is important.”

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