SYPT: A Recap of an Adventure
Posted 05/20/2017 09:00AM

Anastasia Kolesnikova ’18, whose remarkable science achievements were heralded on the TASIS Blog earlier this spring, discusses her experiences at Physics Week in Zurich and at the Swiss Young Physicists' Tournament (SYPT) in Lausanne.

Anastasia Kolesnikova ’18 at SYPT

Hard at work at Physics Week (Photo credit: sypt.ch)

By Anastasia Kolesnikova ’18

63 people…

Two selection stages…

Only five of us were going to make it.

* * *

The Swiss Young Physicists' Tournament (SYPT) is a physics-based contest that runs annually throughout Switzerland. It is part of a larger scheme called the IYPT, or the International Young Physicists Tournament, which is, in short, an international tournament dealing with both theoretical and applied physics.

Before delving into the story itself, here are a few things to understand.

The tournament runs like this: there are three teams in one “heat.” A heat consists of three “fights.” A fight has three people involved, one from each team. One person, the “reporter,” presents a theoretical and experimental answer to one of the 17 problems proposed by the International Young Naturalists' Tournament (IYNT) organization beforehand. A person from another team, the “opponent,” criticizes both the theory and the experimental approach of the reporter, prompting a scientific discussion. He or she then summarizes what went on in the discussion and whether he or she feels like the reporter actually knows something. Then the person from the third team, the “reviewer,” summarizes the presentation and discussion, critiques both the opponent and reviewer, provides his or her own interpretation of the problem, and brings up any missed points.

The three parties then face the jury and answer its questions. Points are awarded by the jury and counted up in a special way, and then the highest-scoring team goes on to the next round. Keep in mind, though, that every section is timed.

The SYPT aims to mimic that structure in its fights.

Now that the foreground is established, let’s get to the fun bit.

I looked up the SYPT, and the whole idea of working on a research project and being able to present it in front of like-minded peers appealed to me immensely.

The SYPT fliers have been hung up on the door of the Physics Laboratory every year since I started high school. Of course, I had always been mildly curious, but at the same time, I had a burning hatred for all things related to physics. (That doesn’t mean I wasn’t a keen scientist—it was just physics that I struggled with.)

This year, after realizing my potential in physics as well as gaining confidence in the subject, I decided to check out the fliers. What did I have to lose, anyway? No one in the school had participated before, and I couldn’t see why not, since I’m only a junior and don’t have to worry that much about exams and typical IB stuff.

I looked up the SYPT, and the whole idea of working on a research project and being able to present it in front of like-minded peers appealed to me immensely. That said, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared or nervous—public speaking has never been my forte, and having to criticize someone else’s project without ever having seen it sounded like a nightmare.

Nevertheless, I slipped in my application the day before it was due, just making it by a tiny margin. One of the options I had on the application was to sign up for a “Physics Week,” carried out by the organization, where I would spend five days in Zurich preparing my problem and working on it while receiving feedback and any theoretical help.

On the first day of the “Physics Week,” I woke up at the crack of dawn to catch a train to Zurich. The ride wasn’t long, but it was long enough to rouse all sorts of hesitance, doubt, and uncertainty about what I was doing. I had no one with me, my friends and family were going to be in a different city, and I was going to spend five days with a bunch of strangers in a city I didn’t really know. A single question kept on running through my mind: “Why on earth did I sign up for this?”

When I arrived, I had a little bit of time to grab a cup of coffee before I had to meet the rest of the group at the train station. I was buzzing with nerves—it has always been very hard for me to start conversations and establish contact with people I don’t know. Yet I came up to the meeting point when the time was right and was greeted with smiles and handshakes, as well as by another student, who was from Basel. It kind of put me at ease for a few seconds, but as the group started to get bigger and it started to seem like most of the people knew each other, my spirits started to decline.

One of the biggest things I realized at that moment? Everyone spoke German, except for the two Asian students who spoke French. I knew there and then that I was going to have a hard time without German.

We caught a tram to the school whose labs we were going to take over for the week. A few students were waiting for us there, so we all assembled and broke into small awkward groups of people who knew each other beforehand. I was left alone, staring at the posters on the walls with a glass of water in my hand.

After about 15 minutes, we were invited into a lecture hall, where the basic schedule and aims for the week were explained. We were split into groups, and each group had a teacher with expertise in the areas the problems the students chose concerned.

Lab station at SYPT

The setup for my experiment

My problem had to do with the parameters that affect the forces required to separate two glass plates from one another. I was in a lab with three other people, one of whom was working on the same problem, another on developing a device to stop an egg from cracking when it’s released from a height of two meters, and the third one on using a laser to see how well an egg is cooked.

This makes us sound like the nerdiest people. Although I wouldn’t be lying if I said that we were just a collection of socially awkward nerds.

Throughout the week, every day had eight hours dedicated to experimental work. We had activities and free time in the evenings, which allowed us to talk to each other and bond. It was an incredible experience. I cannot express in words how awesome those few free hours were.

From being isolated and alone, I came out of the week having friends throughout Switzerland who were interested in the same things that I was interested in, who had fun doing the things I had fun doing, and whom I would have never met otherwise. I grew as a communicator as well as a physicist—I gained confidence in starting interpersonal relationships as well as approaching people I don’t know.

It was sad to say goodbye to them when the week was finished, but school awaited. That didn’t mean that I didn’t sulk for the next week, but when reality hits, we’re all helpless.

That wasn’t where it ended though. The actual contest was on March 18–19, and I was awaiting that moment with all my heart. The tournament was held in Lausanne, at the EPFL, and the swim meet the weekend before, which TASIS hosted, provided me with contacts in Lausanne, for I had two girls from the city stay at my house and got to know them before going to Lausanne.

This time, I was nervous for the presentation, but I was excited to be seeing the people I knew. I roomed with a few girls I befriended in the “Physics Week” and had an amazing time catching up and horsing around with the guys I knew.

The night before the tournament, everyone stayed up till the wee hours of morning in order to go through their presentations one last time. That caused all of us to be sleep deprived the next morning, but we powered through on adrenaline and went on to start the tournament.

We received a welcome speech from the director of the organization, as well as the director of EPFL. We then broke into our teams (I was paired with a team of two people I had never met before, but we developed a trio quite quickly), and the first heat of fights happened.

I had to review a fight as my first part, and I turned out to be quite a good reviewer. I had to prepare a presentation from scratch while the others were presenting. That is where my teammates came in—they helped me type things up on the slides and suggested things to say. Due to their help, I wasn’t as nervous as I could have been when I went up to present.

Anastasia Kolesnikova ’18 at SYPT

Listening to my teammate present his problem (Photo credit: sypt.ch)

After the first heat, we all had lunch together, and I got to catch up with my friends on other teams and hear about their group of judges and how their fights went.

In the afternoon, we had another heat of fights. This time I had to present my project. I was downright freaking out, but the girl in my team brought me a glass of water and a little piece of chocolate to calm me down. This little act of kindness helped me relax, and I realized that no matter what, I could not let my nervousness affect our group’s score.

At the end of the day, current team rankings were released. Excited, we went to see what place we were in, and to my surprise we were seventh out of 21 teams! Excited and happy, we went to dinner, and I spent a lot of time talking to both my friends and my teammates.

The next morning, the last day, had one last round of fights in which I had to oppose, and that was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. I opposed a problem that was not exactly in one of my best areas, and the boy whose presentation I was opposing did not seem too knowledgeable either, so I had to jump from topic to topic in an attempt to get him to talk and explain his problem clearer.

Nevertheless, after the last heat and lunch, relieved and tired, we all were invited to a lecture by one of EPFL’s physics teachers. The girls I hosted during the swim meet snuck in because they wanted to see me, and we got to go to the lecture together and catch up.

The lecture was quite a success. Instead of a presentation, as we were expecting, the teacher came up with about 12 experimental demonstrations to show us. Each one was more exciting than the last: he exploded soda cans, launched water rockets, broke glass with sound, and made magnets levitate. The room was captivated, and two hours passed like they were nothing.

When we came back, the final results were published. My team finished fifth in the team rankings, and I finished third in the individual rankings. I was ecstatic, but at the same time, I couldn’t believe it—my first try and already I was in the top three. I knew that by the rules, the first nine people are selected to go on for a further qualification, but my friend reminded me that those results were not yet final—there was a final heat to go, with the top three teams competing against each other.

Anastasia Kolesnikova's team at SYPT

My team at the SYPT (Photo credit: sypt.ch)

The next three hours were filled with tension—each of us had a preference for a certain team, and I was very excited to see a team of people I befriended at the Physics Week fight for the right to be included in the next qualification, for the winning team would pass on to the next round.

The team I was not expecting to win, won. More information about this team and the finals can be found here.

We had a small, intimate awards ceremony, and then it was time to leave. I felt changed, both as a person and as a scientist, because I now had a better idea of what it would be like to present my own findings in front of a group of other scientists and face clarifying questions and a critique.

Yet this was not the end of my association with the SYPT. In a couple of weeks I received an email saying that I qualified for the team qualification. The team qualification would be just like the SYPT, except this time there was an exam to take and another problem to take on.

But this was more of a bonding experience for me that also helped improve my teamwork skills—learning to collaborate with people with knowledge, language, and cultural differences in a pressured environment is definitely a skill I developed.

The problem that I got was to make a hair hygrometer and see what would affect its precision and time of response. Now that was when all hell broke loose.

Suddenly I was swamped with projects, lab reports, IAs, essays, and homework and found it almost impossible to find a single second to carry out my experiments. I knew that I couldn’t let my schoolwork suffer due to the project, and I knew that in the end, I would probably end up sacrificing it to keep up with the rigors of IB life.

With that said, it was not an easy decision, but at the same time, it was a decision that I had to make—it was too risky to let my grades drop since these grades will be the greatest decision factor next year for the predicted grades that get sent to college.

Nevertheless, I completed a presentation and was able to carry out experiments at home. The only problem with the project that I was assigned was that the experiment is mostly a biological investigation, and I was missing one of the most important factors: a theoretical model.

Despite that, I still went on to the qualifications. I took the exam on the first day and gave my presentation. The exam was a great big mess—I had no idea how to approach most calculations and problems, but after a little while of talking to other participants, I realized I was not the only one. In fact, when the results came back, I was one of the only students to get any points on the derivative questions!

The evening finished with free time, and we were mostly left alone, so it was a very interesting experience in terms of independence—I have successfully mastered the reading of Zurich’s tram lines.

The next day awaited more fights, and as more people presented, I realized that I was most likely not going to make it. They seemed to have a deeper knowledge of physics, or at least of their problem’s physics, than I ever hoped to attain. That said, my opposition flopped—I simply had no idea what the presenter was talking about in their presentation and did not know what types of questions to ask!

But this was more of a bonding experience for me that also helped improve my teamwork skills—learning to collaborate with people with knowledge, language, and cultural differences in a pressured environment is definitely a skill I developed. There were a few instances when I realized what teamwork really was about and how I can contribute to that in order to achieve the best results.

In the very end, the team that would go to represent Switzerland at the international version of the SYPT, called the IYPT, was chosen. Although I did not make it, I felt that on the whole, this experience was a challenge and a great opportunity for personal growth.

Plus, there’s always next year!

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