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What It’s Like to Compete at Regeneron ISEF

I’m finally back from what I think has been one of the most amazing weeks of my life! I’m not kidding, for a science competition, the past week has been so incredibly exhilarating, dramatic, ridiculously fun, and filled with such amazing people. Anyways, after a week at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), if you’ve ever wondered what ISEF is really like and what you need to know before going (I know I did!), here’s a blog of what truly goes down at ISEF, and also my tips and advice for competing in these science fairs!

But first, here’s a bit of context. So, what is ISEF? ISEF stands for the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, which is the largest and most prestigious science fair competition in the world. Every year, there are 1,800 students that get chosen from their regional and state fairs to compete, spanning a large variety of categories from engineering to microbiology to plant sciences. It’s a science fair, but it’s not just your average school science fair. From curing cancer to engineering solutions to forest fires, many of these research projects seem to be world-changing. You can check out this year’s projects through the virtual ISEF ProjectBoard site here!

Day 1: Flying to Georgia!

So, ISEF 2022 was held in Atlanta, Georgia from May 13-17 at the Georgia World Congress Center. That meant on the first day, it was time for us to fly to Georgia! Our flight was super early in the morning, so I woke up at 4:00 AM to drive down to the airport. This was actually my first time going through the airport by myself, and it was a lot easier than I expected. Our team had a group chat on messages to communicate and coordinate our meeting place. When I first got to the terminal, I couldn’t find anyone, but pretty soon, I realized, it’s pretty easy to find where the science fair kids are. Just look for a kid with a huge, oversized poster tube, and that’s definitely one of the ISEF team kids. We then boarded the plane and landed at the Atlanta Airport. In total, we had 11 students and three chaperones.

So, what’s Atlanta like? Firstly, everything smells like fried chicken. But secondly, I was in awe of the architecture and the nice, breezy weather there. We first went down to the convention center to register and get our finalist badges, and then we returned to the hotel to check in. This was when we noticed the unimaginable – for some wild coincidence, we had arrived at our hotel the same day as the furry convention. Yup, 7,000 people dressed as animals wandered around the hotel. It was a hilariously bizarre experience, because it took us 30 minutes to get on the elevator, as every single elevator was packed to the brim with furries. At least after surviving the elevator, my hotel room was gorgeous and I could see all of the buildings in Georgia.

For dinner, we went down to a local pizza shop called Mellow Mushroom, and this was the first time that I actually got to know my team. All of us came from the same region of the state, but we came from six different high schools. We spent the night talking about our lives, our schools, our hobbies, everything, and also having a hilarious arm-wrestling competition and arguing about testosterone (don’t ask). My team turned out to be the best part of the experience – they’re all super awesome people 🙂

This was the view from my hotel room. So gorgeous, am I right?

Day 2: Set-Up and Display Day

That morning, I had the perfect “it girl” morning. I woke up at 6:00 AM, took gorgeous Instagram photos of the sunrise, went down to the hotel gym to work out for 45 minutes, then took a cold shower and got dressed. It was just so picturesque, and I felt so cool. Of course, my breakfast was not as picturesque, since I ate cold pizza from last night while sitting on my bed and watching the view, but we’re going to ignore that for my perfect “it girl” morning routine. After coming downstairs, it was display and set-up day, which meant lugging our oversized posters and all our supplies down to the convention center.

Unfortunately, when I got there, I realized that the poster boards sold at the ISEF store were 48″ x 48,” not 36″ x 48.” I know, it’s no big deal; just cut off the bottom of the board to make it smaller, but I was just salty that I had wasted space on my poster because I could’ve made my poster even bigger. At ISEF, I realized that there were posters of all different sizes, so in reality, it doesn’t really matter how big you make it. I also met up with a friend from a different state who was also at ISEF, and he helped me with setting up my board. We originally tried clipping the poster onto the board with binder clips, but we realized quickly that, first, this was ugly, and second, the middle parts of the poster were impossible to clip down. Luckily, I brought this weird mounting putty that I had, and that literally saved my poster since it looked so much better, without obvious clips or bubbles sticking out.

For lunch, our team went out to a nearby food court to get food. When we came back, I had to submit my forms and wait for display and safety to come and inspect my project. Some people reported having to wait hours for multiple rounds of display and safety inspections, but I got mine approved relatively quickly with just one inspector who signed off on my forms in about an hour. After that, I met up with a couple more friends at the college fair. MIT was at the college fair, so we saw Chris Peterson, or Petey, who’s a well-known admissions officer at MIT, and got a couple of cool stickers from him.

That night, we had the pin exchange, which is an ISEF tradition where each state or country brings their own unique pins, and you go around in the ballroom swapping pins with other people. A lot of people had some really cool pins, and I even got a handmade, beaded bluebonnet one and a turtle with flashing lights! I was with the Michigan team for dinner, and the food was pretty mediocre. But, it was still super fun to meet so many people!

When we got back to the hotel, I practiced my speech with my roommate, who had arrived that day, and we talked about our experiences at the regional and state science fairs. My roommate is just super amazing. She’s such a wonderful person, and I’m so grateful to have gotten her as a roommate! We did a ton of practicing and reciting our speeches before going to sleep at midnight.

Day 3: Special Awards Judging and Opening Ceremony

The next day, and like every day after that, our morning was quite a rush. As expected for teenagers, none of us were ever on time waking up, but it was kind of funny. We nearly called security on one of our team members because he had overslept that day. My roommate had just arrived yesterday, so she didn’t have time to get her display set up in time, and this morning was her last chance to get approved by display and safety. So, our first priority was getting her board approved. Later, I attended a seminar on applying to college as a student researcher, hosted by MIT, Yale, and Georgia Tech.

After this, I explored the college fair, including schools like Caltech, Harvey Mudd, New York University Tandon School of Engineering, and Princeton. I really enjoyed learning about Harvey Mudd in particular, because it’s a liberal arts college, which has a philosophy that’s quite different from many of the large research universities I was interested in. I used to absolutely despise the idea of a core curriculum because I want to have the freedom to take whatever class I’m interested in without being forced to take certain classes like we do in high school. The admissions representative really sold the idea well that their core curriculum is meant to train their students in both science and humanities in order to improve their skills as science communicators. Overall, I think I’m just so impressed by the resources in college. It’s incredibly different from anything I’ve had access to in high school, and it seems like going to literally any college will be such an incredible experience. I’m leaning towards smaller or mid-sized private institutions or even liberal arts colleges right now, because I’ve heard that you’ll need to compete more at large public universities to get the resources since there’s no hand-holding with that many students. I’ve gone to public schools all my life, so having a small, individualized, private school environment would be a fun experience.

For lunch, the food court was packed to the brim with ISEF kids also trying to get lunch at the same time. I spent 28 minutes waiting for my salad from Chick-Fil-A, which I was salty about. That afternoon, I had a special awards judging session scheduled with the United States Air Force Research Laboratory. There weren’t any office spaces or quiet areas to do the interview, so I just sat in the convention center lobby, hoping the background noise wouldn’t be too bad. Some of my teammates reported having technical difficulties with the meeting platform, but the only issue I ran into was not being able to share my screen. For this judging session, I went through my entire 8-minute spiel, and the judge asked me some questions afterwards. The interview went super well – the judge told me that my project was impressive, and the entire interview lasted 30 minutes!

I then spent the rest of the time lounging around with my team, begging our chaperones to let us go to the ferris wheel nearby, eventually compromising on Oreo milkshakes and strawberry shortcake sundaes at the food court. We also had the final member of our team arrive that day! After that, we went to the opening ceremony. It wasn’t super eventful – We heard from Maya Ajmera, the CEO of the Society for Science (who we saw a lot of that week) and George Yancopoulos, the chief scientific officer of Regeneron. After the speakers, we had a showcase of all of the countries that were represented at ISEF, where one student from each country would film a short video to say hi, and that was really cool!

Now here’s the thing – our group had been dying to go to the Ferris wheel, and we begged our chaperones to let us go. To our surprise, they said yes! I also successfully convinced my chaperones to temporarily adopt my friend from Pennsylvania into our group to go on the Ferris wheel together. We’d walked past it everyday, and we wanted to see what the view looked like. The view wasn’t that much different from our hotel, but it was fun anyway to check it out. Also, we were obviously being super responsible by having fun the day before judging day, when we should’ve gone to sleep early 🙂

This is what the project showroom looks like at ISEF! All of the projects are arranged by category.

Day 4: Judging Day and Student Mixer

Here’s the day we’ve all been waiting for: judging day. Surprisingly, I was not scared at all, like not the least bit nervous. I have no idea why – usually, I’m absolutely petrified before judging and interviews. Judging began at 9:00 AM, and my first judging session was at 10:00 AM. So here’s how judging works: There are judging blocks, each 30 minutes long, throughout the entire day until 4:00 PM. Within each judging block, you have 15 minutes to present your project, while the other 15 minutes are for the judges to take notes and find their next project to judge. We were given a timesheet with all of the judges scheduled for our grand awards judging, while special awards judges could come in between the scheduled judging sessions to ask any questions.

When the judges come over, you’ll say hi and shake their hand. The judges usually don’t introduce too much about themselves, so you won’t know what their expertise is in, but all of the grand award judges are very knowledgeable in the category since ISEF judges are required to have a PhD or at least 6 years of experience in the field. Once you introduce yourself, you can begin your speech. So the big thing that everyone says is that the judges like to interrupt early with questions, so it’s best not to prepare too long of a speech because you’ll never get to finish it. I prepared a full 9-minute speech, but I think this ended up working out really well for me. I was only able to get through the introduction and background information before the judges started asking the questions, so I mostly got microbiology questions, and those were the questions that I had most wanted to answer. I learned pretty quickly to stop for questions right after the introduction, answer questions, and move on to the next section. This is also why it’s important not to be too rigid with your script – you’ll get interrupted a lot, and the judges do pay attention to whether or not you can switch quickly between questions and giving your presentation. By the end of it, I wasn’t even following my script anymore; I just talked on the spot for my entire presentation.

So, how hard were the judges’ questions? They were definitely more detailed than the questions I had gotten at the state and regional fairs, and most of the judges seemed to actually understand my project, or at least were visibly interested in trying to understand it. I didn’t get any questions that completely stumped me, but there was a question about how we could detect plasmid-mediated antibiotic resistance over antibiotic resistance caused by gene mutations that was the most challenging question that I got. Many of them were also really good questions, and I took the judging session as a conversation to share my work and get insight from microbiologists about questions to consider in my research. Also, don’t be afraid to talk about the limitations of your work. I talked about what I didn’t know and needed to find out, especially since my project was entirely computational, so all of the data were predicted values, and the actual experimental values were something I hoped to obtain in the future. Most importantly, I was visibly enthusiastic and excited about my work. Your tone and how you present yourself matter a lot, because the judges want to know if you actually did the work, and they would want to vouch for someone who seems to be genuinely passionate about what they do rather than someone who doesn’t seem to really care much about their work.

For special awards judging, one of the judges from the University of Arizona was just passing by and checking out some of the projects, and I offered to present my project to him. He agreed, which led to a great conversation about inhibitors where he also discussed some of his work in screening existing drugs for different purposes. I also got a couple more adults who came to talk to me about my project. I’m not sure if they were special awards judges, grand awards judges, or just people who were interested in my project, but I really appreciated getting to present my project anyway!

We had a short break for lunch in between judging sessions, where we met outside the convention center to eat our lunch with the team. Then, it was back to judging.  While I’ve heard that it’s better to have more judges and really good projects end up getting 20-30 judges, I don’t think that was necessarily true, at least not for this year, which might have been different because of the hybrid format. The number of scheduled judges varied depending on the project category, and not many people got that many unscheduled grand awards judges, even the people who I knew had really strong projects. Then, at 4:00, judging was finally over after an exhilarating day. Right afterwards, I went to a friend’s booth to help set up a surprise birthday party for them with a couple other friends. I then left with my team to take pictures by the ISEF sign, and we went back to the hotel to prepare for the student mixer that night.

The student mixer was held in the auditorium space behind the opening ceremony area, and they had activities like a bouncy castle training course, cornhole, and four-square, as well as a dance party with a small but spirited crowd. They also had food stands from a variety of vendors. But, here’s the thing we learned quickly that turned into our inside joke – the food provided by ISEF is absolutely horrid. Look, I didn’t even know it was possible, but the pizza provided was worse than school pizza (all American public school kids know the horrors of cafeteria food), where the cheese wasn’t even cheese, it was some sort of plastic-y material.

Our team soon got bored, and that’s when we really started having fun together. It started as a mafia game during dinner. We decided that we wanted to resume the game by gathering at someone’s hotel room when all of the chaperones went to sleep (scandalous, I know), so we went back to our hotel, then we all snuck out to meet in one of our team members’ rooms. That night, we gossiped and played mafia until 1:00 AM in the morning. Our midnight sneaking-out adventures were definitely one of my favorite parts of ISEF (but of course, don’t try this at home, kids!).

Of course, the whale shark was my favorite animal at the Georgia Aquarium 🙂

Day 5: Public Day and Visiting the Georgia Aquarium

After judging, there’s a day where anyone in the public can come to check out your project, mostly consisting of fair directors, parents, and other students. We were technically supposed to stay at our booths, but I was just so bored of sitting next to my booth and waiting. Because I was so curious about the other projects, I basically spent the entire time NOT at my booth, just going around and meeting other people in microbiology and nearby categories. I’m so glad I did that; I got to meet some really interesting people and explore some super cool projects!

Once that ended, there was an Excellence in STEM and Technology panel that we could attend. I did go, but I was so exhausted from staying up all night last night that I fell asleep during the panel. There are a lot of these panels and symposiums offered during ISEF though, and I probably should’ve attended more than I did. At lunch, our team had a heated discussion about where we should visit in Atlanta. We discussed Six Flags, a museum, or the zoo, but in the end, we settled on going to the Coca-Cola Factory. On our way there, we ran into a film crew for the documentary series by National Geographic called Science Fair, and they asked us to pose for a scene in the documentary, which was pretty funny as we pretended to lounge on the grass. By the way, throughout the entire week, there were film crews everywhere, some of them from the documentary, others from certain countries filming their finalists, and some YouTubers.

There was a local musician in Atlanta who showed us a song on the drums about spreading love, and he chatted with us about how we could change the world as scientists. That was super sweet. I actually liked Atlanta, and a big reason is because of the people. The people there always greet you when you pass by, and it’s definitely not the same in other places in the United States. Anyways, at the Coca-Cola Factory, most of it was advertising for the company, with some displays on the history of Coca-Cola. But, the big highlight of the factory was the tasting station. They had drink dispensers with Coca-Cola flavors from all different countries, and we had so much fun just going around and drinking gallons of Coca-Cola. My team especially had a ton of fun with the sour plum flavor from China, because they said it tasted like barbecue sauce.

After that, we had one of the main highlights of the week: visiting the Georgia Aquarium, which is the biggest aquarium in the United States. The Georgia Aquarium shut down for a day just for all of us ISEF finalists to go visit. We first had dinner, and we were all shocked at the good food for once from ISEF! We then explored all of the exhibits – everything from sea horses, dolphins, seals, penguins, and whale sharks. It was completely, ridiculously cool. The aquarium is just mind-blowingly amazing, and there’s so much stuff inside. We just had so much fun there, and luckily, it was just enough time for us to visit all of the exhibits they had.

At 9:00 PM, it was time for us to go back to the hotel. I know, you might expect that for a nerd-fest, none of us would probably have social lives. But surprisingly, our lives as nerds are quite dramatic, and right after the aquarium was when a lot of my own drama blew up. So at midnight, we all went up to someone’s room, and we had a complete, full-blown gossip session about all our boy problems and relationship drama until 3:00 AM. It was so much fun, and we spent the entire time just dishing and spilling the tea on everything.

I ended up winning a scholarship from the University of Arizona during the Special Awards ceremony!

Day 6: Educational Outreach Day, Hack-a-thon, and Special Awards Ceremony

Most people had nothing to do that day. But, for me, I signed up for pretty much everything there was at ISEF, so this was the day for me to speak to middle and high schoolers from local schools in Georgia about research and also participate in a hackathon hosted by XdHacks Mini. But, the first thing in the morning was to meet with our sponsors. Every category had different sponsors, like, for example, Regeneron sponsored the life sciences projects. I met with scientists from Regeneron who talked about their work and what it was like to do research at Regeneron, and I got to ask a lot of questions about careers in science. (Also, they had a great selection of pastries and breakfast foods as light refreshments, so I was happy.)

For educational outreach day, around 30 ISEF finalists were selected to give TED talk-style speeches to a room full of local students, rotating three different times. When we got there, we split into pairs, and I was paired up with a girl who had done a project on treatments for ischemic strokes. She was super cool, and her talk was about how she got interested in science, despite thinking that she was more of a humanities kid when she was younger. My talk was about finding my own resources to do research, and the reason why I decided to give this talk was because I always felt that doing research as a student was such an inaccessible and daunting thing that I could never achieve. In fact, there were so many student researchers who I idolized when I first began my journey in research, and I thought I could never, ever compare to them or do anything as amazing as they did. But throughout these past few years of research, particularly at ISEF, I was able to meet so many of these people who I had once idolized, and I realized that they were really just people, and teenagers, too. All of us were just teenagers. There’s such a huge barrier in research where you expect that you need a fancy lab and lots of funding to do research. I’ve now realized, from entering the world myself, that it’s not always like that, and even I was able to become a part of this world of research. There’s so much more I could say about the world of student research, but this was the message that I wanted to share with the students. I had a huge fear that I would sound pretentious or that the students wouldn’t care, but the students were so, so amazing. They were all super nice, and they asked a lot of really good questions. They seemed genuinely interested in what we were here to talk about, and that really made my day.

The talks ran a little longer than expected, so I was late to the hackathon. So, the hackathon is an event where they give us a prompt for a world issue to solve, and we have to make a one-pager creating a solution to the problem, fitting under certain categories. There was also a talk on entrepreneurship in the middle of the session. However, pretty soon, I needed to leave because my team wanted to return to the hotel. Because of this, I didn’t really do much at the hackathon other than come in late, eat my waffle from the Waffle House, Google some things about climate change, and leave in the middle of it. Yes, I felt tremendously guilty for abandoning my team.

Our team wanted to have a celebratory dinner at a restaurant somewhere (finally not at the food court!), so we went down to Hard Rock Cafe. They had some amazing strawberry lemonade, and I got a cedar plank salmon with mashed potatoes and beans, so it was nice to have a team dinner. We then went down to the convention center for the special awards ceremony. There are a ton of cool special awards at ISEF, including cash prizes, free trips, and scholarships. I had four special award judges come talk to me about my project, although I’ve heard that it’s not a requirement for special award judges to have talked to you about your project to be selected as a special award winner. So… How’d it go? I ended up winning a scholarship from the University of Arizona, and a lot of my teammates won some cool awards as well, including one from the CIA! I was so pumped up after the special awards ceremony. While walking back, I ran into a guy from Germany who had won so many special awards, and we chatted for a bit to talk about his project and what it was like in Germany. That’s also one of the best parts of ISEF, which is meeting new people from different countries.

Of course, we had another late-night get-together, sneaking up to someone’s room because it was our last night at ISEF. We stayed up the whole night gossiping, rewatching our old science fair videos and laughing at them, and watching weird videos of people cursing in Korean. Over the course of the week, our entire team had become best friends, and they’re now some of my favorite people!

Day 7: The Grand Awards Ceremony and Going Home

From sleepless nights over the course of two years crying over data sets, stuffing my brain with facts about Gibbs free energy and dissociation constants and drug efficacy, and figuring out how to set up experiments through trial-and-error, it all culminated in this: the Grand Awards ceremony. Alright, alright, I wasn’t that dramatic. The experience at ISEF had already been so much more than I ever imagined, and I didn’t really care that much whether or not I won an award. At 5:30 AM, I snuck back into my hotel room and pretended to have been sleeping to avoid disappointing my roommate with my poor life decisions (sorryyy!), and we got up and packed all of our stuff since we would be leaving for the airport immediately after the awards ceremony. We checked out and left our luggage at the front desk, then went down to the convention center for the final time. The awards ceremony was held where all of the 2nd through 4th place winners for each category would be announced, and all of the 1st place winners would be announced last all at once. There was a keynote speaker in the beginning, and after that, that’s when we got to the awards, in alphabetical order by category. 

So…. Drumroll, please…. I ended up winning the Second Place Grand Award in Microbiology! I had never, in my wildest dreams, ever imagined that I would actually win at ISEF. I knew ISEF was crazy competitive, and I came in thinking that I was lucky enough to squeeze in as a finalist. It’s just so amazing to have won an award, and it makes me emotional thinking of the entire process of how much I looked up to ISEF winners when I first began doing research. Overall, our team did super well! We won 23 awards total, including special awards and one First Place Grand Award winner, so I’m super proud of my team!

After the awards ceremony, we had 15 minutes to take down and pack our display and rush to the airport. Because of that, I had to rip the poster off the board and carelessly stuff it into the tube as quickly as I could, praying that it wasn’t crumpled beyond repair. I helped some other members of my team with their display, and we immediately set off rushing for the airport. It was pretty funny when we got on the metro to get to the airport. You could visibly see people’s “oh no… not them again” when we had nearly 20 people crammed into the metro carrying tons of luggage and oversized poster tubes, taking up all the seats. Luckily, we got to the airport on time, and we had time to spare to get some food at the airport. I got Popeye’s chicken because, unfortunately, I did not get any fried chicken or peaches while I was in Georgia, so this was sort of compensating for that. I crashed immediately and fell asleep for the entire flight, because I was so tired from my all-nighter the night before. When we landed, we spent an hour waiting for our luggage to arrive on the baggage claim, but none of us were really in a hurry, because we didn’t want to say goodbye. It was such a bittersweet moment, but eventually, we had to say our goodbyes.

And that’s it! My tumultuous, crazy, ridiculously fun, amazing trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, I’m not going to end with my reflections because that’s actually going to be in a separate blog post (stay tuned!), since this blog post is already crazy long. But for my ISEF people, I love you guys. This was the best week ever 🙂

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