Regis High School Chemistry Whiz Attends White House Science Fair
UPPER EAST SIDE — Christopher Hillenbrand has dreamed of beakers since boyhood.
Since he was 5 years old, Christopher has been intensely curious about chemistry, learning about the discipline by reading as much as he could.
But what started off as a bookish hobby — with a chemistry set cobbled together from household cleaning products and a Chinese takeout container — has culminated in presidential recognition and worldwide acclaim.
Christopher, a 15-year-old sophomore at Regis High School — whose soft-spoken self-deprecation belies serious intellectual chops — won a gold medal representing the U.S. team at the International Chemistry Olympiad in summer 2012. That landed him an invitation to the White House Science Fair that was held on Monday.
The fair, hosted by President Barack Obama, celebrated top student participants of science, math, engineering and tech competitions, according to Regis and the White House. Christopher said he was excited to attend the fair — and liked Obama's long-standing message that young intellectuals and innovators should get just as much recognition as young athletes.
"Instead of paying so much attention to sports, we have to give them equal attention," Christopher, who lives in Montclair, N.J., recalled of the speech.
"Which means I have to go look at sports some more."
After returning to New York on Monday night, Hillenbrand — who was the youngest member of the 2012 U.S. team and the only participant to take home a gold — warmly recalled his roots. One of his first major forays into the field of chemistry was his sixth-grade purchase of "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood" by Oliver Sachs, a memoir detailing the famed neurologist's fascination with science.
"I decided at that point I wanted a home lab," he said. "It wasn't until the eighth grade that I got the money together and the will to clean the porch."
His parents' reaction?
"'Do it outside!' 'Wear a mask!'" he said. "So I did."
His first experiments involved some combination of vitamin C, iodine and ammonia mixed in an empty chicken mei fun container, he said. Christopher admitted that some of these early experiments didn't go quite as planned.
"The reaction mixture became really hot," he said, smiling. "That's all I have to say."
Educators at Regis said they are impressed by Christopher's dedication.
"He gets distracted by chemistry," said Candace Cooke, a Regis chemistry teacher. "He does a lot of homework in front of me. He can't help himself sometimes."
Regis' Assistant Principal Kristin Ross commended his passion.
"He's not at all impressed by himself in a really wonderful way," Ross said. "Everything that he's done here is real intellectual curiosity — real passion.
"He's challenging himself in a natural way."
Christopher wants to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but isn't sure what he would like to study or pursue as a career. But he is certain about one aspect of his future.
"Whatever the career, I'll still do chemistry," he said. "Even if I'm a chemist, I'll still do chemistry at home."