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Suffolk center stage in chemistry

For fifth- through eighth-grade science minds in Virginia, Suffolk was the center of the universe on Saturday.

Once again, BASF on Wilroy Road hosted the state championships of the Chemical Education Foundation’s You Be The Chemist Challenge.

It was a tense, high-stakes atmosphere. Before a sizable audience of moms and dads and other family members and supporters, the students — apparently most from Northern Virginia — battled it out.

Facing off in the seventh and final round were two Arlington students, Athilesh Thanigai of Edlin School and Shaan Bhandarkar of Nysmith School.

After the competition started with 20 students, including four from Suffolk, it was a little strange to see them sitting a few rows apart amid empty chairs.

Five questions and a few minutes of conferring by contest officials later, and Athilesh was off to the national challenge, in Philadelphia on June 22.

Its organizers say the challenge encourages students to “explore important chemistry and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts and their real-world applications.”

But from what I saw on the weekend, it achieves much more.

At the end of the competition, when the tension in the air had drifted away, all contestants happily stood for photographs, shook hands and shared a few remarks on the contest and perhaps where they’re from and other small-talk.

They got the chance to meet other young people from across the state sharing the same interest in science they have.

They also benefited by meeting BASF folks who’ve been able to build successful careers based on their interest in and aptitude for chemistry, such as chemist Ernie Leber, who had a lot of valuable advice to offer the kids.

When I arrived at the office Monday morning, an email from Athilesh was waiting for me. He thanked me for Sunday’s article, adding, “It’s great that kids are getting exposed to science and being excited about it too!”

Athilesh’s sentiments show that the students who competed Saturday understand the importance of promoting chemistry and other sciences as career paths worth pursuing.

Who knows, maybe Virginia will emerge from the national competition known as being home to the brightest young chemistry mind in America.

Show them how it’s done, Athilesh! Suffolk stands behind you, I’m sure.