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Portrait: Ema

Ema's story starts as one of contrasts and of challenging stereotypes. She is an athlete as well as a seasoned and accomplished (Science) Olympian, having won a bronze medal at the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad and a silver one at the Swiss Olympiad in Informatics (SOI) last year alone. "Especially when they [people] get to know me as the girl who plays soccer, and then they hear that I also do maths and computer science, they sometimes get confused". This year, she has her sights set on closing the few points' gap that kept her from the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) in 2020. Her goal is to be part of the Swiss delegation at both EGOI and IOI.

Guided by innate talent and enjoyment for mathematics, Ema found her way to SOI by first participating in the Mathematical Olympiad. The experience appealed to her, so she set out to find other Olympiads she could participate in. "[...] I found out about informatics. I had been programming a bit in my free time already, so I thought I'd try it". Mathematics is also what continues to fuel her programming exploits "I really enjoy maths and I see programming as an application of it, it's like the closest thing that could be useful for everyday problems. I also like the potential that programming has or just technology in general, for the future", along with the puzzle-solving aspect that comes up during the Olympiad.

When first starting out in SOI, she was able to rely on her already rich mathematics knowledge to help her along: "In the beginning it wasn't very hard to find the solutions to the problems, just because they are quite mathematical, or they require a lot of logic, and I had trained that". However, it wasn't all effortless. A few missing pieces were standing between her and her desired performance. "I knew which algorithm to use, but I didn't know every detail of how to write that algorithm down. So in the first year, before every competition, I was really scared that I would solve a problem in my head, but then I wouldn't know how to program it". After the first year, as her programming skills improved, it all started to come together. Her confidence also saw a large shift, which she considers to be the biggest general improvement, as well as an accurate indicator of her progress over time.

The challenges of SOI go beyond programming. Ema admits, laughing, that her biggest challenge was in fact "getting used to really struggling with the things I thought I was good at and getting used to asking for help". At the same time, this helped her get a glimpse of the world outside the classroom and put her abilities into perspective. "If you're just at the top of your class, and you know there's twenty people there, you never really know how much that means outside the class". As a result, she learned to focus on her individual progress and avoid comparison: "I feel like you can see much more progress if you only look at yourself, and it has been very helpful".

The highlights of her SOI experience are the people and the community. She appreciates the atmosphere of camaraderie that the shared enthusiasm for informatics creates. The volunteers serve as role models to the participants, and the other participants feel like friends rather than competitors to Ema. To encourage more girls to participate, she would say "[...] definitely try it, and also don't give up if it doesn't work from the beginning [...] you can participate another year, at least you've learned a lot, and you've met a few people". She points out that the only prerequisite is interest; prior knowledge is not required and the preparation events that the SOI team diligently puts together each year do a great job of teaching all the basics one would need for the competition.

She'll be off on a new adventure next year, as she finishes high school. What does she hope the next years to bring? "I'd like to study maths. I don't think I have a specific goal, but I would like to make a small difference with maths somehow.(...) maybe just proving some small thing that no one has proven before, it might be completely insignificant but I'd really like that, or I've been considering teaching maths as well, helping students who felt they couldn't do maths understand that it's not that bad". I truly hope teaching will find a place in Ema's future. Her talent, passion, her outstanding achievements, and the lessons she takes away from her SOI journey are an inspiration.