International Biology Olympiad, IBO Challenge 2021

•The Philippine team won two bronze medals and two merit citations at the 2021 International Biology Olympiad (IBO) Challenge.
•Initially planned to take place in Lisbon, Portugal, the 2021 IBO Challenge was held virtually from July 18 to 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation.
•This year’s IBO Challenge was the Philippines’ fourth time to participate in the prestigious international competition.

While Philippine athletes were busy made history at the Tokyo Olympic Games this year, Pinoy students were demonstrating their scientific excellence in various international olympiads. Among these was the recently concluded 2021 International Biology Olympiad (IBO) Challenge, in which the Philippine team won a total of four awards.

Participating in the IBO for the fourth time, the country bagged two bronze medals through the efforts of Jeremy Ng (who also won bronze in the 2020 IBO Challenge) and Chiara Tan-Gatue. Meanwhile, Drew Tres Reyes and Andrew Tumulak earned merit citations for their performance at the prestigious international competition.

This year, 396 students from 76 countries participated in the global biology tilt, which was held from July 18 to 23 online instead of in Lisbon, Portugal as originally planned. As the official IBO 2021 website explains: “This pandemic is also affecting IBO for the second consecutive year not allowing people to travel freely and making it impossible to ensure a safe face-to-face IBO competition.”

Beginnign in 2020, the IBO was renamed the IBO Challenge, likely to distinguish the virtual tilts from the face-to-face competitions held in previous years.

Going up against the best

“The IBOs are VERY difficult, and [the Philippine delegates] go up against the best biology students from all over the world,” explained Dr. Ronald Allan Cruz, IBO Country Coordinator of the Philippines and one of the team’s coaches. “To get two bronze medals and two merit citations is amazing.”

Every year, the Philippine delegates to the IBO are selected via the Philippine Biology Olympiad (PBO), which is held months before the global contest. However, unlike previous PBOs held in the Ateneo de Manila University campus, this year’s screening for the PH IBO team was strictly online-only. “Our primary concerns were 1) to establish a process that was accessible to potential delegates from all over the Philippines and 2) to ensure the integrity of the examinations even with the delegates taking the test remotely from their homes.” According to Cruz, this involved live recording of the test-taking, assigning student volunteers as monitors during the exams, and other strict measures.

To provide the delegates with sufficient training, Cruz said that all semifinalists went through “a month-long series of lectures and workshops on theoretical and practical aspects of biology.” Furthermore, by the time the final four were chosen, they had already gone through three rounds of tough biology tests, preparing them for what the IBO had in store for them.

Tomorrow (19 July) and on Wednesday (21 July), Team Philippines competes with the world’s best in the International…

Posted by Philippine Biology Olympiad on Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Philippines: Future IBO host?

“It was inspiring and humbling to see how the passion of the Portuguese organizers created such a wonderful and carefully planned event, despite the completely online set-up,” Cruz shared, adding that the Philippines is tentatively set to host the IBO in 2025. For now, the Philippine coaches and organizers are determining how to further improve the training program, to empower future participants and help them bring home gold and silver medals.

Cruz believes that joining international science olympiads allows Filipino students to fully showcase their excellence in science, regardless of what the results of national assessment tests may suggest. In addition, such events present opportunities for them to network with (and learn from) other brilliant students worldwide, while proving that they can compete with the best of the best.

“We need to show that not only to the world but to Filipinos, especially those who doubt our own capabilities.”

Thoughts from the team

In separate interviews with, the Philippine delegates to the 2021 IBO shared their insights, experiences, and lessons learned.

What made you want to represent the Philippines at the IBO?

Andrew: Being able to represent the country in any competitive capacity has always been a goal of mine. I’ve competed in many competitions nationally, but I haven’t had the access nor exposure to international competitions earlier in my life. In a way, IBO was my way of finally checking the goal of competing internationally off the bucket list. Hopefully, I get to join more international competitions in the future because I think the level of preparation really takes you to another level and headspace. I think that that level of competition is ultimately what drove me to do my best for the country.

Chiara: I wanted to represent the Philippines at the IBO in order to bring honor to my mother country, the Philippines. Besides, I believed that it was not only a fantastic opportunity to challenge myself and my understanding of biology, but also to meet like-minded biology enthusiasts and experts from all over the world.

Drew: I initially took my National Biology Olympiad exams nonchalantly, just thinking it would be a nice addition to my future college applications. However, the more I studied and the more important connections I made about the world around me, the more I fell in love with the subject matter. I definitely think that effort fueled my interest in biology and not the other way around.

Jeremy: I have been looking forward to representing the Philippines at the International Biology Olympiad Challenge, especially knowing that it would be my last year of eligibility in the competition. I have long trained and prepared for the Olympiad, and it is both an honor and a challenge I took upon myself to represent the country and raise our flag in the field of biology on the international stage.

How did you prepare for the IBO?

Andrew: I spent about 2.5 months training, studying by myself from May to June, and having guided training from excellent Biology profs for the first two weeks of July. For those first two months, I planned out a studying regimen with dedicated topics (i.e., Genetics, Anatomy, etc.) per week and tried my best to spend 5-8 hours a day studying. Of course, there were inevitable roadblocks, so I made sure to make up for lost time by adjusting study periods and lesson plans whenever needed.

Chiara: I prepared for the IBO mostly by reading biology books and answering past papers of the IBO. I was also trained alongside the other Philippine delegates by wonderful professors from the Ateneo de Manila University, and I am truly grateful for the training that they have given us. Aside from that, I was able to ask previous IBO contestants regarding their experiences in the Olympiad and tips and advice on how to get ready for it.

Drew: I knew that IBO was going to be extremely challenging since it’s known as the most prestigious biology competition for high school students all around the world. So I asked my mom to buy me a lot of biology books. I have ones on ecology, genetics, comparative/evolutionary anatomy, plant biology, and microbiology. However, some of these books were a bit too dense for my liking, so I supplemented my studying with a lot of YouTube videos which I found much easier to absorb.

Jeremy: At length, my training for IBO 2021 took around one whole year of self-preparation and a few weeks of intensive review. The months-long Philippine Biology Olympiad helped me maintain being in sync with the IBO wavelength throughout the year. We also had the opportunity to attend a two-week-long training from several professors from the Ateneo de Manila University. On top of these, I’ve read several books on the various sub-disciplines of biology, solved past problems, trained myself to analyze and critically scrutinize data, and read up on many of the latest research and developments in biology to prime myself for the olympiad.

Describe how it felt to compete in this international competition from the comfort of your home.

Andrew: It was definitely a bummer that I didn’t get to go to Portugal and enjoy the experience of representing the country in a face-to-face setting. Despite this, I still feel grateful that I was able to join a competition as big as this from my home. In fact, it was the hosting of the PBO in the online platform that led me to represent the country in the IBO in the first place. I wasn’t able to join the PBO’s past iterations because of barriers to access like geography (I live in Davao) and scheduling. Thankfully, the online platform they used for PBO 2020 allowed much easier access for people like me, so I guess it was fitting that I also joined the international competition from the comfort of my home. As for IBO itself, I fortunately didn’t face any difficulties when it came to internet connectivity. The software used for the test was intuitive, so I didn’t have any problems with the technicalities. Being in a familiar place also had psychological benefits in getting into a competition mindset since I already associated the room with the mental exertion expected from taking tests. Most importantly, the organizers adjusted for time zone differences by having everyone take the exams at 9 AM in their local time, thus avoiding the pitfalls of having some participants have an edge simply because the competition happens during their peak productivity hours. Overall, the entire examination process for me was smooth and allowed for optimal conditions in my test-taking.

Chiara: For me, it felt pleasant to be able to compete from the familiar comforts of my own home, without having to worry about adjusting to the environment of another country or the possible effects of jet lag on my performance. Nevertheless, I still felt a bit disappointed, as I had missed a chance to enjoy the sights and sounds of Portugal due to the pandemic.

Drew: For the most part, I felt widely unprepared. Biology is a far-reaching discipline and literally and figuratively anything under the sun could come out in the exam. Combined that with my untimely propensity for procrastination (extremely not proud of this!), I blew it. Although I got lucky with the animal anatomy section (since the only thing I studied thoroughly under this category was insects, and that is what exactly came out in the exam), there were just some questions that looked like a foreign language to me, no matter how hard I tried to dissect them. However, I still found most of the exam questions quite enjoyable. The whole experience was definitely a life lesson on procrastination I will never forget!

Jeremy: It is really unfortunate to end my IBO journey in an atypical online setup, but I’m more than grateful for the incredible opportunity and experience nonetheless. Despite being conducted remotely and taking the exam at home, the nerves and the intensity were still very much present. I’m also glad to still be able to interact with volunteer guides and fellow competitors, and it’s fascinating to be able to engage with like-minded enthusiasts from other countries, not to mention doing so even in the middle of a pandemic.

What did you learn from your experience at this year’s IBO?

Andrew: The main lesson I learned was that no matter how hard you prepare for something, there will always be unexpected factors that you have to adjust to in the moment. As I’ve noted, I spent quite a lot of time preparing and studying, but dealing with the test was a different beast altogether. The IBO exams are structured in a way that most of the questions aren’t answerable through rote memorization and thus required a lot of critical thinking to extract insights about the data presented. Because of this, the preparation had to be structured around how you think instead of what you know; while concepts were important, most of the questions expected the test-taker to know how to process graphs, think laterally, and notice patterns. The nature of the test questions and the time pressure were definitely a challenge: even 3 hours was barely enough to read, analyze, and answer all the questions because of the analysis required for each. As I took the tests, I always made sure to be conscious of how much time I spent as I wanted to make sure that I could cover everything without wasting time on questions I wouldn’t have gotten right anyway. This made the process more dynamic than most other competitions I’ve gone to (mostly quiz bees) since those relied more on intuition and specific matter versus the emphasis on careful data analysis given by the IBO.

Chiara: Looking back on my experience, I think that studying diligently and being well-prepared by acquiring knowledge about various fields of biology are essential to excelling in the IBO. However, I believe that I still have room for improvement, so hopefully, if given the opportunity, I can perform better in next year’s IBO.

Drew: The most important lesson I learned at this year’s IBO is that belonging to a community with like-minded people feels highly rewarding and stimulating. Talking with the IBO delegates from other countries definitely materialized my love for fun intellectual discussions about science in general. It would have been a total blast if I have had met them in person.

Jeremy: There’s always something more to learn and discover about the world and its people. Hard work does pay off, and some things really take time. Despite being under the limiting conditions of the pandemic, it’s important not to limit ourselves in what, where, and how we can learn. IBO Challenge 2021 was an incredible experience that, through the process, allowed me to appreciate even more the versatility and the limitless frontiers of biology moving forward.



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Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco

Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.