RAS AL KHAIMAH // Her pipettes poised and her hot plate ready, Aisha Abdullah was ready to win a gold medal for her country. The 18-year-old chemistry aficionado was one of four students representing the UAE at the sixth Arab Chemistry Olympiad, held for the first time in the UAE this week at the RAK Medical and Health Sciences University. More than four dozen students from 13 Arab countries battled, test tube to test tube, hoping to securing a place at next year's International Chemistry Olympiad in Ankara.
The Emirates finished second at last year's Arab Chemistry Olympiad in Saudi Arabia with one gold medal, two silvers and a bronze. Though the UAE has not participated in the International Olympiad yet, Ms Abdullah could be leading a team there next year. "It would be very good for them," said Mouza al Mattar, the UAE Chemical Society president. "I think the secondary schools in our country are very active and the teachers are doing active and cooperative learning."
As Ms Abdullah swirled a solution in her flask to a translucent white, she dreamed her team would win the tournament's four gold medals, 10 silver and 10 bronze medals. Chemistry has been her life since she was 14, when she left her town of al Dhaid to represent the Emirates at the Junior International Science Olympiads in South Korea. Her experience has made her a role model for teammate Noura Salim, 18. This year's training camp at the Etisalat Academy in Dubai was her first time away from her family.
"At that time I wanted to cry," said Ms Salim, from the Fujairah mountain village of Tawaeen. "I was very stressed and everyone was worried I would make them stressed like me." The training camp was as gruelling as any physical sport. The country's top 13 students qualified for a three-month programme in Dubai and two students were eliminated in each session. The final five underwent two weeks of rigorous training last month where they studied theory from 7.30am to 9.00pm.
The eldest four, which included Abu Dhabi's Hamdan al Housany and RAK's Omar Abdulla, made up the 2010 national team. The youngest, Abdullah Fahd from Abu Dhabi, hopes to participate next year. Ms al Mattar said it took hands-on work to make a chemist. "The lab is the door for the theory," she said. "If they want to be excellent in theory they must have skills to discover, to investigate, so the practical is the most important thing in the secondary school for chemistry."
Ms Salim will study geographic information systems next year at university in Al Ain, while Ms Abdullah plans to take up chemical engineering at the American University of Sharjah when she graduates next year. She wants to represent the UAE in Ankara first, though. "I'm proud to represent my country and I hope to get a gold medal," said Ms Abdullah. "If I get a gold medal I make my country happy."
The UAE team will face tough competition. Manayer al Abkal, 17, from Kuwait, came out confident after five hours of theory exams on physical, organic and inorganic chemistry. The Kuwaiti team have prepared for four months, studying five days a week in June and July. "We have a chance," she said, fingering the buttons on her labcoat that carried the flag of her country. "It wasn't difficult. Some tests were easy."
For Nader Hussam, 17, success at the Palestinian national finals in the West Bank town of Ramallah brought him a step closer to his dream of studying at the University of Cambridge in Britain. "It is my first time out of Palestine," said the grade-12 student. "There were so many students in Ramallah. I was afraid but I did well. They chose the best four students and we are here." Some of the international competitors came with their own personal cheering sections. Alanoud Turki, 18, had her family accompany her to RAK from Saudi Arabia so she could participate. She said the event pointed up what she enjoyed best about chemistry.
"I love how every substance in this world has its own personality just like people," said Ms Turki. "Each one has its own path, its own personality, its own fingerprint." firstname.lastname@example.org