With the end of high school years approaching one of the toughest questions a student must face is to what direction they should choose after graduation, where they should continue their studies. The sooner the decision is made the more time is left for gathering information, for dedicated preparation, but making that decision is an extremely hard task, which is only complicated further if someone is as talented at more than one field as Diep Nguyen Bich (Zia).

Zia, Milestone’s Senior graduated from Budapest Fazekas Mihály Gimnázium’s specialised mathematics class this year. In April 2021 she won a bronze medal in the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad as a member of the Hungarian team, and as for someone coming from a special maths class, it would have been just logical for her to continue her mathematical studies at a university level. Besides maths, however, Zia has also developed a keen interest in biology, which is clearly demonstrated by the fact that this spring she qualified for the International Biology Olympiad: as an olympic team member she will represent Hungary this July.

“There were periods when I was considering dropping maths for biology,” Zia says as thriving at such a high level in more than one discipline – besides all the other school duties – is a major challenge. Besides her high school teachers, to whom she is also very grateful, the person who helped her a lot in succeeding at both areas, and to eventually find her path, was her Milestone mentor, who supported her, among many others, in effective studying and in the right distribution of the extreme workload. “When I felt that school to-dos and Milestone together were just too much, my mentor helped me coordinate the tasks, and he provided me lots of extra motivation”.

Zia couldn’t have found a better mentor as Norbert Krisztián Fehér, who helped her within Milestone’s framework over two years, is an alumnus of the Institute himself, who graduated from natural sciences in Cambridge, and is currently a medical student at the Oxford University. Norbert could support Zia not only in studying but also in the development of an ideal vision for her future: “A mentor’s job is much more holistic than focusing only on school work” Norbert explains: “We worked together with Zia for two years to figure out what universities she should apply to, where she could be really successful, and where she could fulfil her true potential”.

Every student has a different mentality: in Zia’s case Norbert considered it to be one of his most important tasks to increase her confidence in herself, in her talent and in her knowledge. According to Norbert “Zia’s approach is absolutely special, perhaps it’s even humbler than necessary; the most important was to make her believe that she can be successful”. Self confidence is also crucial when it comes to practice because, as Zia explains, it is key both at student olympiads and at university application interviews how well the contestant or the applicant can present their ideas. During mentoring sessions it was olympiad preparations and university mock-interviews, while at the Biology Olympiad Learning Lab module it was class activities and interactions that helped transform existing knowledge into confident, active mastery. 

Regardless of how successful Zia could be at mathematics and biology at the same time, eventually she had to make a decision on what direction she would take forward, and she felt she could give back more to the world through biology. “I’m primarily interested in cellular biology and cellular level processes, and it particularly inspires me that discoveries in this field can be put to use in medical sciences” Zia says, who is, of course, motivated not only by altruism but also by her own curiosity. She would like to work as a research biologist, although she hopes that in the long run she wouldn’t have to give up entirely on mathematics either.

When she had to decide on university applications, the funding opportunities redrawn by Brexit did not deter her from applying to the top five universities in the UK. “I knew already when I applied that this situation would very likely make it impossible for me to continue my studies in the UK but I wanted to put myself to the test anyway” Zia adds. She got accepted to four UK universities (University of Cambridge, University College London, King’s College London and the University of Edinburgh), which is an outstanding achievement, but as a non-British citizen, no educational grants were available to her, so she decided to study at ELTE University’s Faculty of Natural Sciences from September.

Her plan is to pursue her MSc abroad after getting her BSc in Hungary as at a masters level the number of available foreign scholarships is higher. And a medal from the International Biology Olympiad would look good even in an MSc application, although Zia emphasises that it’s not that that motivates her the most at the olympiad but competing itself as she likes to put herself to the test. While it’s only natural that to a certain extent it is a disappointment that without a scholarship she cannot accept the offers she received from top universities, Zia’s philosophy can be exemplary for everyone: “Regardless of what school or university we go to, everything depends on our approach. If we put enough effort into it, we can make the most of it. The most important is to be aware of what we are truly interested in, and to seek to do what we love”.