From my last post on going to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), here are my best tips for ISEF, from all of the pre-fair freak-out logistics to what to pack for the trip there! The reason that going to ISEF meant so much to me was that I felt that it was a rite of passage for student researchers to go to ISEF, and I wanted so badly to be a part of that. In order to compete at ISEF, finalists have to be selected from an affiliated fair in each state, region, or country, usually the top few winners. I won First Place Grand Champion with Distinction at my regional science fair, and learning that I had been selected to represent my state at ISEF was just such a huge dream come true for me. I was so stressed that week of the awards ceremony for my regional fair – and I screamed and freaked out when I realized I had won!
Of course, the reality that I was going to ISEF finally hit me – through all of the logistics I had to figure out! First up was the finalist questionnaire. After I was officially part of my state’s ISEF team, I needed to register through ISEF’s finalist questionnaire platform. The form is honestly really tedious – they have a ton of questions, including about your project’s patent status, your extracurricular activities, and copies of your files and forms. We also had to send in our full logbook to our regional fair for approval, and for me, that included a physical spiral notebook with a ton of notes and ideas, as well as a digital logbook that tracked my daily progress.
How do I make a poster board?!
But the most headache-inducing part was the project board. My regional and state fairs had been virtual, but I was going to ISEF in-person. That meant I needed a physical poster board, and I had about a month to figure everything out. Unfortunately, at the same time as I got the news that I was an ISEF finalist, my school suddenly cut me off from their Adobe subscription (I guess they did find out after all that I had been leaching from their Adobe subscription for far too long…). I panicked, because I really needed that Adobe Illustrator subscription in order to design my poster board. So, I spent the next week just pleading with anyone that could help at my school to give me back access to Adobe, even going as high as the superintendent of my school district! Luckily, I got access to Adobe just in time. In reality, you don’t actually need Adobe to design scientific posters, and most scientists just use PowerPoint or Inkscape. But design people know – once you try Adobe, it’s hard to go back.
ISEF technically gives guidelines that your poster can’t be more than 108 inches tall, but nine feet tall is ginormous, and I did not have that much content. In the end, I found out at ISEF that there are so many different posters of different sizes. I saw some that were just barely bigger than the size of a flier, and also some that reached the full 108″ height limit. But if you’re making your poster huge, your office printer just won’t cut it. When I called all of the printers in my city, most of the prices were in the $50-70 range, and this was for printing my poster in three pieces on poster paper as three 24″ x 36″ panels. I decided on a 36″ x 48″ poster with a 12″ header on top to make the entire poster board around 48″ inches tall. Which by the way, I think ultimately was the perfect size. Right before I gave up, I decided to ask my school’s photography department if they could help me print, and I got my poster printed perfectly on semi-gloss paper for just $15!
Now, you might be wondering, how did the giant tri-fold posters get there? If you’re thinking about shipping a complete, mounted tri-fold board, try searching for it on UPS, and then your eyes will pop out of their sockets like mine did when I realized it would cost over $200 to ship. And I was not about to spend $200 shipping a piece of cardboard to Georgia. I know for many other students, their regional and state science fairs bundle up all the posters to ship together as one bulk shipping cost, but my fair didn’t do that. I couldn’t bring a fully-mounted poster board on the plane, since it was too big to fit as a carry-on. Other people told me that the easiest option in this case was to just roll up my poster and buy the actual board when I got to ISEF. I was so afraid that they would run out of poster boards because, with 1,700 kids scrambling to get a tri-fold board, I thought every store in Atlanta would definitely be all out of boards when I got there. I tried to place a hold for tri-fold boards at office supply stores in Georgia, but long story short, there’s no need. ISEF knows you’ll need poster boards, so they sell 48″ x 48″ tri-fold boards there, and they didn’t seem to be running out.
Now… How do I present my project?
But that was far from my pre-fair freak-out session. After my poster crisis, now comes my presentation crisis. I didn’t think I stood a chance at ISEF, because all of the other projects seemed way better than mine in every possible way. So, I thought I had to work harder than everyone else to try to prepare for judging. That meant printing out a huge stack of scientific papers to read at any spare moment (like literally every spare moment – Waiting in line? Doing nothing in class? Trying to procrastinate an essay?), I would whip out my gigantic stack of papers and start reading and annotating. I really didn’t think I was prepared enough, so right before I left for another trip, I just burst into tears and sobbed for hours. Honestly, it’s kind of depressing that I was so stressed that my first reaction was to cry when I heard that I was going on vacation, but the ugly truth is that research has its ups and downs, and stress is definitely a part of it. By the way, I was annotating papers on a yacht. It was ironic.
As for memorizing the presentation, no one ever told me how long my presentation should be. I heard rumors that you should only prepare a two-minute presentation because the judges will cut you off with questions early, but in the end, this is my best advice: Have a full 8-10 minute presentation, but in the first two minutes, prepare to stop for questions. So, you could present for two minutes, stop to ask if there are any questions, and then have the other six to eight minutes prepared as back-up if the judges don’t have any questions. For me, I memorized my presentation as a speech, almost word-for-word. My roommate memorized hers with visual cues from her board, but without memorizing specific words. I think most people memorize this way as well, where you don’t need to memorize the exact words to the speech, but just a general guide to what you’ll say. If there’s a certain joke or point that you need to make, you can memorize the exact sentence, but overall, just block your presentation into sections, and naturally, you’ll end up memorizing the same sentences anyway. I could recite my speech starting from any section without any cues, which I think turned out to be very helpful since the judges really do cut you off at random points during the presentation. I didn’t intentionally prepare for that. Actually, I just ended up memorizing it that way because I worked on memorizing my presentation at random times throughout the day. If I was bored during class, I would just start running through my presentation in my head.
The last part about logistics is that it’s important to make sure that you have a plan for how you’re going to get your poster back home. At ISEF, they ask if you’ll be shipping your poster back, and for me, I didn’t want to pay $200 to ship my poster back, so I made sure to use a removable mounting putty so I could remove it and roll it back up when ISEF was over. A lot of people didn’t plan for that, and they ended up having to throw away their posters. We had 15 minutes after the awards ceremony to take down our display and leave for the airport, so it needed to be a really quick take-down too.
The Ultimate ISEF Packing List
- Three occasions of formal wear – I assumed that formal attire was required every day, but there are only three occasions when formal attire is required: judging day, special awards ceremony, and grand awards ceremony. You could totally just wear the same formal wear for all three, but I’m extra, so I brought multiple outfits.
- Two business casual outfits – These are days where you don’t technically need to be dressed professionally, but it’s better to look decent and presentable on those days, like during the category networking sessions or public day.
- Four casual outfits – You can probably dress casually for most days; this includes the pin exchange, set-up and display day, and educational outreach day. For the pin exchange, some fairs will have shirts to represent the state or country for you to wear.
- One pair of sneakers and one pair of formal shoes. There is A TON of walking at ISEF. The convention center was absolutely gigantic, and I was not going to walk 20 minutes back-and-forth every day (just from the hotel to the convention center!) in heels.
- Laptop and charger. You probably won’t need to work during this time, but it’s good to bring your laptop just in case. Also, I had a virtual special awards judging session, and I didn’t want to be in the communal computer area where everyone was having their judging sessions at the same time, because I thought it would probably be really loud there.
- All parts of your project display – I will be so disappointed in you if you remember to bring a curling iron but not your project board… Definitely not talking to myself here. Make sure you have everything if you have multiple parts to your poster board. Some people have a little demonstration or animation at their display, so make sure to bring that if you do.
- Copies of your research paper, ISEF forms, and lab notebook – ISEF requires you to display certain forms, but it’s good to bring a copy of the others as well, just in case. I also had a copy of my research paper (written in a LaTeX typeset!) at my display, and that actually opened up some conversations with judges when they asked why it was in a preprint typeset. (The real reason? To try to hide the fact that my paper was hot garbage by using a ✨ pretty typeset ✨)
- Water bottle – The inside joke of our team is that on the first day, someone got absolutely scammed by paying $4 for a bad vending machine iced tea, because they were so desperate for water. They have water dispensers and all, so bring a bottle for that. Also, I started losing my voice after the second round of judging on judging day, so yeah, you’ll need water.
- Any poster mounting supplies that you might need – Or more specifically, anything that ISEF doesn’t provide. ISEF has a hub that provides a ton of mounting supplies, but sometimes there are just supplies that are special to your poster that you might need. For example, I brought some mounting putty, Mod Podge, binder clips, and poster mounting tape. Mounting putty was what saved me when I realized nothing else could work on my poster.
- Backpack or big bag – Yeah, I think my arm nearly fell off from carrying my bag everywhere everyday. I don’t even know what I had in such a huge bag, but it was very much needed.
- Pens, pencils, and markers – Whether you’re signing someone’s board on the day you’re leaving, pranking someone with a secret message at their display (yeah, that was a thing), or filling out your forms, there’s always an occasion where you’ll randomly need a writing utensil.
- Whatever you’re using to transport your project back – Whether you’re shipping it or lugging it back in a poster tube, keep the tube or have a plan for how you’re going to take your poster home.
- Toiletries – You probably know all of that; I don’t need to remind you. But whatever you need, makeup, face wash, hair ties, deodorant, remember to bring all that. Also, I considered bringing my curling iron, but ehhh…. Also, simple jewelry can sometimes look really nice. I had one silver butterfly necklace that I wore all the time that looked really good with all my outfits.
- Snacks – I’m not the type of person to eat snacks, but your only option is the overpriced vending machine if you do want a snack. If you want, you can bring your own snacks to eat in between judging or during breaks.
Finally, the most important lesson before going to ISEF
I cannot stress this enough, but the most, most, MOST important part of ISEF is just to have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously. I know, this is a serious competition. For me, this was the competition, the event that I had spent the last two years of my life preparing for and wishing I could go to, and it seemed like such a huge deal, where I really wanted everything to be perfect. I had spent the three months leading up to it just studying for my project. But honestly, the best part of ISEF wasn’t even the awards. Not even close. The entire experience was one of the most fun weeks of my life, and that’s because I really just let loose and let myself enjoy all of it – I got into drama, snuck out at midnight to have fun with my friends, and somehow left a trail of broken-hearted boys at a science fair competition, of all places. Please do not put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect during ISEF. It’s truly the experience that makes it the big deal that it is – and in the end, I don’t think anyone really cared all that much about the awards anyway, because just being there was an amazing experience by itself. I loved it all, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. ISEF is truly amazing.
Here’s My #RegeneronISEF2022 Music Playlist!
I actually documented every day of ISEF on my Instagram page, and I’m so glad that I did. I added a song to the post of the day for every day, so here’s my ISEF playlist! Is there a personal significance to each of the songs, or did I just choose songs based on whatever I felt like? Hmm…. You’ll never know which one’s which!
- Youth by Glass Animals
- #icanteven by The Neighbourhood (ft. French Montana)
- First Class by Jack Harlow
- Cry Baby by The Neighbourhood
- Party in the U.S.A. by Miley Cirus
- Helium by Glass Animals
- Fallin’ (Adrenaline) by Why Don’t We
- There’s No Way by Lauv (ft. Julia Michaels)
- what are we by Virginia to Vegas
- The Other Side of Paradise by Glass Animals
- Waterfalls Coming Out Your Mouth by Glass Animals
- Favorite Regret by Peder Elias (ft. Sval)
- Thing of Beauty by Danger Twins
- Photograph by Ed Sheeran