Carnegie Mellon University

Sam Zbarsky

Sam Zbarsky (S 2017)

Mathematical Sciences major, Physics Olympiad Silver Medalist


Quantum Result

Sam Zbarsky might not wear a team jersey as he walks the halls of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. But make no mistake; he’s a competitor. He is one of only 20 students nationwide to make it to “training camp” for the 2013 Olympics—the 44th International Physics Olympiad, that is.

It was a long time coming. As a freshman, he signed up for a number of academic clubs, but when he learned about the international competition, the physics club got his attention. Making the cut for the Olympiad training camp was a long shot, though. Each year, thousands of the brightest highschoolers try out for the team, but only 20 make it to training camp: from that group, only five are chosen to represent the United States.

The odds didn’t faze Zbarsky. Sure enough, during his senior year of high school, he receives an invitation to training camp at the University of Maryland. For nine days there, he studies intensively, completes mystery labs, takes daily exams, and solves complex problems. There are no sentimental favorites in the final selections for the Olympiad. It all comes down to testing results.

In just a few months, he will begin his freshman year at CMU’s Mellon College of Science, and he hopes to tell stories to his classmates about competing at the Olympiad, which will take place in Copenhagen, Denmark.

At training camp, he learns how to use equipment like oscilloscopes, and how to record results and procedures. With each lab, he feels his abilities growing, but still, he isn’t certain he will make the final cut.

He does!

Last July, in Copenhagen, Zbarsky and the other four students representing the United States (two from New Jersey and two from California) competed against the most brilliant, budding scientific minds of their generation—hailing from 83 countries. Zbarsky says he enjoyed the intensity. He also enjoyed the results, winning a silver medal at the Olympiad and having a great story to tell his newfound Carnegie Mellon friends a month later, two of whom turned out to be Olympic medalists as well from another competition: Thomas Swayze (S’17) and Ray Li (S’17) won silver medals as part of the U.S. team competing against 96 other countries in the International Mathematical Olympiad.

—Elizabeth Shestak (DC’03)

This story originally appeared in Carnegie Mellon Today. 

Photo, from left: Zbarsky, Swayze, and Li.