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Student stories - Academic

Perseverance and determination sees young biologist off to Africa

To prepare for the competition, Alex spent three hours a day revising a first-year university textbook and practicing dissections on fish, prawns, mussels and flowers.

Alex Pentchev in Year 13 has been selected to represent New Zealand on an international scientific research internship in Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

Alex placed among the top five high school biology students in New Zealand in the 2018 New Zealand International Biology Olympiad (NZIBO), in April.

The success gained him a place in a team of students representing New Zealand in investigating terrestrial ecosystems near the crater lakes of Tanzania and the aquatic ecosystem in Lake Malawi.

The students will learn research skills, contribute to a Nature magazine database, and earn their PADI open water diving certification.

To prepare for the competition, Alex spent three hours a day revising a first-year university textbook and practicing dissections on fish, prawns, mussels and flowers. He said being selected in the team was one of the best moments of his life. “I started screaming my head off. I had been working towards this for more than a year, and it felt that all those late nights had finally paid off.”

He believes Biology, his favourite subject, allows you to look at the living world on different scales.

“The macro scale allows you to appreciate the beauty and incredible organisation of different species and ecosystems, and on the micro scale, you can learn about fascinating and precise chemical pathways. You can go from studying enormous ecosystems, compiled of thousands of individual species and exponentially more interactions, to studying the exact shape and catalytic function of a miniscule enzyme in the body.”

Alex’s last-year Biology teacher Oliver Brown said Alex was a talented student who asked perceptive and insightful questions and had worked determinedly to learn Biology content normally encountered in a first- or second-year university course.

“Joining one of the Operation Wallacea expeditions is a fantastic and well-deserved opportunity and I hope this experience inspires him to pursue scientific research as a career.”

During the internship, Alex is most looking forward to diving in Lake Malawi, which offers the highest biodiversity of any lake in the world, and experiencing life in a small Tanzanian village with no running water in the middle of the African Rift Valley.

Next year he aims to study Biochemistry or Medicine and aspires to a career in both research and medicine.


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