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Pacifying Paxman

Posted by on August 15, 2014

by Anthony Martinelli

Over the course of my life, I have achieved a couple of things on which I reflect with a particular sense of pride. The most recent was an appearance on television last Monday evening, when I had the privilege of captaining my College’s team on University Challenge, a program I have watched for over a decade. Another took place back in 2008, when I was selected to represent the UK at the 19th International Biology Olympiad in India.


These two formative experiences are not without their similarities: on both occasions I was part of a team of four students, both rewarded fairly esoteric knowledge and, most significantly, to me they both represented the joy of learning for sake of learning. Ultimately, despite the fact that I smiled quite rarely on camera, I can certainly claim that there are few feelings more satisfying than buzzing in for an answer on the show and hearing Jeremy Paxman affirm its veracity rather than dismiss it with disdain, but one of them may have been collecting my silver medal in Mumbai.

It is also fair to say that my experiences at the IBO were, in themselves, helpful contributors towards my relative trivia success. Not only because I gained a sincere interest in wider biology, allowing me to, for example, answer questions on Shinya Yamanaka’s work on pluripotency, but also because it gave me some experience of having to perform under pressure. As a team at the Biology Olympiad, we all really felt we were, in some small way, representing the whole United Kingdom. As a result, the prospect of letting down the 800 students of Gonville and Caius on a quiz show seemed a little less daunting. Further to this, the Biology Olympiad provided me with confidence in my own academic abilities, and buzzer quiz is all about confidence. This generation of self-belief extends in a much more direct way to two of my old Olympiad team mates, who have gone on to pursue competitive PhD programs.


I am told that, if sufficient funds can be raised, the UK will take its turn to host the IBO in 2017. From my perspective, this would be an unmissable opportunity to showcase the fantastic science conducted in this country to the rest of the world and also to encourage the growth of the biosciences on a global scale. Teams from every continent compete at the Olympiad: I am still in touch with friends from across the world and I have no doubt that many of them will become influential researchers, teachers and doctors in the coming years. It would be a shame to miss our chance to demonstrate to the young biologists of 2017 that the UK remains a serious academic force, information which they would no doubt bear in mind when considering international collaborations over the course of their own careers. In an age where British isolationism seems to be becoming increasingly fashionable, I am certainly prepared to help the Society of Biology achieve its goal of hosting the International Biology Olympiad in any way that I can.

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