The UM chemists' formula for bronze

On March 27, ten students from the Faculty of Chemistry surprised everyone by taking third place in the French Chemists' Tournament. The only university represented in a competition dominated by the grandes écoles, they perpetuated the tradition of the alchemists by transforming their iron will... into a bronze medal.

" This tournament is a bit of a closed club between very prestigious schools, but this year we managed to slip into the selection," explains Jean-Sébastien Filhol. For this teacher-researcher in the chemistry department of Montpellier's Faculty of Science, the aim of taking part in the competition was twofold: to introduce a little competition into the teaching process by offering students this challenge, and above all "to show them that they have no reason to devalue themselves in the face of students from engineering schools ". Surrounding him was a teaching team just as determined as himself: Jean-Yves Winum, Claude Niebel and Sébastien Clément. All that remained was to recruit students...

Eight compulsory subjects

A call went out in January and the dream team quickly took shape. There are ten of them, named Méritxell, Hugo, Bruna, Louise-Marie, Anthony, Omeima, Laura, Lilian, Maria and Audrey, and they are all enrolled in a master's degree in chemistry, specializing in biomolecules, separative chemistry or materials. What motivated us was the idea of deepening our skills, experimenting and networking," explains Bruna. Teamwork and competition then became the driving forces. " And the little group is off to a flying start. They have just three months to prepare the eight topics they have been given.

Cooking an egg without heat, presenting an edible blue orange, capturing ultraviolet light in a photographic print, creating a non-toxic green pigment or proposing an olfactory formula for water - these are just some of the challenges the young chemists at UM had to tackle. Noon, evening, as soon as classes leave them a bit of leeway, they work hard on their subjects and meet every Wednesday over pizza to present their results and practice their oral presentations. " In the end, I was on the computer all day, all the time," confides Laura. It wasn't just a game," continues Jean-Sébastien Filhol, "it was real professional preparation.

The art of contradiction

On "D-day", they were ready to take on the six other teams from the country's top schools: the ENS Ulm, Lyon or Paris Saclay, and the engineering schools Chimie Paris Tech, ESCPI and École Polytechnique... "We had to admit that the others were looking down on us a bit," says Jean-Yves Winum. We have to admit that the others were looking down on us," laughs Jean-Yves Winum. The rules of the game are simple: students compete against each other in four oratorical jousts on one of eight subjects prepared in advance. While one team puts forward its results and experiments in a 12-minute presentation, the other has the same amount of time to prepare its contradiction, before reversing positions in a round-robin match on another subject.

It's quite an art," recounts Bruna, winner of the contradiction prize in this tournament, " while the other team is exhibiting, you have to do all the bibliographical research on their subject, note the strong points, the weak points, and build a slide show to propose avenues for improvement." Contradiction is a job in itself," adds Claude Niebel, " you have to absorb everything the other person says, use your scientific background to fill in the gaps, and know how to make the most of yourself without dismantling your opponent either. " All this, of course, in front of a professional jury of scientists and industrialists.

Another image of chemistry

A bio-sourced green pepper, a blue orange created by extracting natural polyphenols from wine, or an egg cooked in vodka. The solutions proposed by the students won over the jury to the extent that they were awarded third place, which their competitors probably didn't expect. They introduced a sustainable development dimension into the technical solutions they created, showing that chemistry can help solve today's problems," emphasizes Jean-Yves Winum. For Sébastien Clément, " over and above technical performance, the competition is also about giving the public a more accessible, more concrete image of chemistry. This is essential at a time when science is increasingly being called into question.

As for the students, it's with the conviction that they've been taught to a very high standard that they'll approach the next stage of their studies, with a new string to their bow: "In terms of oral skills, we've seen them make incredible progress, which is a real plus for their future professional life," notes Jean-Sébastien Filhol. In terms of confidence, it's an incredible booster! Some of them would never have dared apply for jobs that are more suited to engineers. After this victory, they no longer have any complexes. And that's worth its weight in gold!