’It’s fun but not a game’

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Wendelin Stark and Nevena Paunovic (Photo: ETH Zurich).
Wendelin Stark and Nevena Paunovic (Photo: ETH Zurich).
Professor Wendelin Stark and Nevena Paunovic were both chemistry Olympians. In 2023, they will return to the Olympiad in new roles: the former as the head of the IChO Scientific Committee and the latter as a startup founder. In this interview, they reveal how the Olympiad has influenced their lives and careers, and what participants can expect from the host country and the competition.

When former Chemistry Olympians meet, it’s not hard to start a conversation since everyone has personal stories to share. What is your favorite story?

Nevena Paunovic (NP) : The Olympiad was the first time I experienced lab work in an advanced setting, and I really loved it. I felt like a detective with only a limited time to find clues. It was so much fun to challenge myself this way. What’s more is that at the Olympiad, I met many of my best friends as well as my husband.

Wendelin Stark (WS): I was 15 or 16 when my chemistry teacher in Winterthur asked me if I would like to participate in an international chemistry competition in French-speaking Switzerland. First, I was hesitant to travel there alone. In the end, it was great fun, although, for me, the language was a bigger challenge than the chemistry.

Nevena Paunovic , you won the National Chemistry Olympiad in your country twice, but you could never travel to the international competition. Why?

NP: I’m from Serbia. In those days, the situation was special because after our previous country dissolved, they needed to clarify how new countries would be represented, and there was a lot of bureaucracy. The issues were finally resolved, but unfortunately, too late for me.

How did the Chemistry Olympiad shape you as young people?

NP: To meet people with the same passion is an amazing experience, but everybody wants to win. Usually, you are the best in your school, then the best in your city, then best in your region - and then you participate in the Olympiad and there suddenly everyone is good.

Sounds like a lot of pressure.

WS: The pressure is self-made. Of course, the Olympiad is also fun, but it’s not a game: Everybody wants to succeed and is focused, and that’s good. As a young person, it is sometimes not easy if you are particularly good at something. At the Olympiad, being good is suddenly completely okay, and there is a decent chance that others may be better.

You are both successful researchers today. What did you learn from the Olympiad?

WS: I learned that I enjoy talking with other people about certain subjects and going fast. This debate allows you to develop new thoughts, to playfully quarrel about issues, to kill and revive theories, and to do it again and again. This moves people forward very fast.

: Most who participated in national competitions in Serbia now have very successful careers worldwide. This made me realize that it doesn’t matter if you win the medal. The most interesting part was learning that solving problems is often not straightforward. This helped me never to give up; if it’s hard to find a solution, it’s just exciting, not a catastrophe.

This year you will both participate in the Olympiad again, but in a different role. Wendelin Stark, you are the head of the scientific committee at IChO. Apart from that, you are also a professor and a member of various advisory boards - do you have time to chair the committee, and what motivates you?

WS: I was approached by the national team in Switzerland, and for me, it was clear: I wanted to have the Olympics here. Fortunately, ETH Zurich left the door wide open for me. Everyone involved is motivated, even though hosting the IChO means a lot of extra work. Regarding the question about my time resources, there is one very important person: Patrick Willi. He is a doctoral candidate in my group, but right now, he’s running a lot of the chemistry Olympiad. Without him, it would be impossible. It’s a team effort.

What is the task of the scientific committee?

: The Olympiad is a competition, and the problems we propose must be clear and have solutions. Ninety teams of experts translate the problems into their native language for the students to solve. We must agree on performance metrics, which can be challenging since there is often more than one solution. We also have to provide preparatory problems for training. More I cannot reveal [laughs].

Nevena Paunovic , you will participate in the IChO finding solutions fair, where many exciting startups will be present. What is your startup about?

NP: Sure, I’m the CEO of the future ETH spin-off Transire Bio. We are developing painless alternatives for the delivery of drugs that can only be administered via injections, which affects millions of people every day. Our technology is based on an octopus sucker-inspired patch that can be easily self-applied to the inner side of the cheek, a place where drugs can efficiently reach the bloodstream. I’m looking forward to sharing how we solved this challenge with the IChO participants.

What is your wish for the IChO 2023?

WS: I wish that people have a great time here and great social interactions.
I also hope that the participants see how important it is that a country has an open, democratic attitude, which allows people to develop their capabilities and to live how they believe. I think the most powerful thing that we can expect from Switzerland is an understanding of an open society and the democratic approach.

...and democracy also means working as a team, which is also crucial at the IChO. Do you have some advice for the participants?

NP: Expanding their capabilities, gaining experiences, and meeting new people from all around the world is an award in itself that will impact their lives in ways they cannot imagine. I also wish that they enjoy their time at ETH and the problem-solving.

WS: I wish everybody to look forward to meeting in person because it’s been quite a while due to the pandemic. I would say to them: Bring a good sunhat and maybe your swimming suit. These items should definitely have space in the luggage in addition to the textbooks.

Wendelin Stark is Full Professor at the Institute for Chemical and Bioengineering of ETH Zurich and heads the chair in Functional Materials Engineering. He is also the co-founder of 10 companies active in the areas of diagnostic reagents, nanoparticle synthesis, functional membranes and medical devices, and obtained 40 patents. His research combines materials with specific functions for medical or industrial use. At the IChO 2023, he chairs the external page Scientific Committee call_made.

Nevena Paunovic completed her PhD in the Drug Formulation & Delivery Group of Professor Jean Christophe Leroux (Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, ETH Zurich). Her research interests include 3D printing, biomaterials, medical devices and personalized medicine. Currently she is an ETH Pioneer Fellow soon launching the ETH Spin-off Transire Bio. At the IChO 2023, Nevena Paunovic will be present with Transire Bio at the Finding Solutions Fair.
Julia Ecker