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“In the category of… the first place award goes to…” – If you’ve ever participated in a science competition, you’re probably familiar with these scripted yet nerve-racking words. Every year, more than 9 million students across the globe enter science competitions. Of those, only several thousand students qualify for the highest levels of competition where they contest for millions of dollars in scholarships, cash prizes, and internships. Among the topmost STEM-related competitions are Intel ISEF, Regeneron Talent Search, Siemens Competition, Google Science Fair, and the Junior Science and Humanities Symposia (1).
So how does one make it to these prestigious competitions? This guide will not secure your spot as a finalist but it will provide an account of my experiences in competitive science and tips for becoming a better researcher!
It all started in a high school lab located in an eclectic Appalachian town. My group and I were researching the antimicrobial properties of endophytes isolated from spray cliff plants as a novel source of medicine. We were inspired by the biodiverse selection of flora in our county, specifically ones found in spray cliff environments. Spray cliffs are areas at the basin of a waterfall where plants, constantly misted by water, are naturally susceptible to disease. Because the plants were living in such moist, dark, and cool environments, we hypothesized that they would possess endophytes exhibiting antimicrobial properties. Endophytes are symbionts, either bacteria or fungi, living inside the cell walls of plants. They are found within virtually every plant in the world and have been the recent topic of novel medicine. Ultimately, we isolated 29 species of endophytic fungi showing significant inhibition against Escherichia coli, Bacillus cereus, Candida albicans, and Cryphonectria parasitica. We competed at the state level Student Academy of Science competition and in our state science fair. Working closely with people in our community and doing all of our research in a high school lab, we were able to make it to Intel ISEF, placing 4th in Microbiology. We were also honored to be 1 of 27 recipients in the world to receive the Community Innovation Award.
Over the past few years, I’ve competed at a total of 15 local, regional, state, and international competitions. I’ll admit, the accolades and bragging rights from winning are nice but the experiences I’ve gained from traveling across the country, meeting others, and sharing my research are undoubtedly more meaningful. That’s enough about me though, here is my personal insight and tips on how to make the most out of science competitions!
Coming up with a project idea: Go local! Read your local newspaper, watch the news, and talk to people in your community. I live in a rural town crowded with biodiverse flora, fauna, and natural communities. My group and I took advantage of the resources and people in our in our community and were able to pursue local research that has global application; receiving the Community Innovation Award exemplifies that! I just want to reiterate that my group and I did all our research in a high school lab. Science can be explored anytime and anywhere, and innovation is not limited to university labs. No matter where you live there are always opportunities to make great discoveries. Find inspiration from the immediate world around you. So, what are some community challenges you want to resolve?
“Fail” first so you can succeed later: Every year, my science research teacher makes us do a team building activity where the goal is to build the highest structure that can balance a marshmallow using spaghetti sticks. She then shows us a video that reveals how kindergarteners build higher structures than CEOs and business school students (2). The takeaway is that you shouldn’t stick to a single plan. I’ve seen people spending all of their time perfecting a single element of their project only to realize that it did not work out after all. Try to get an early start! Do preliminary tests and improve your methodology from there. “Failure” is an inevitable component of scientific research but many times it leads you to even greater discoveries! You’re not doing real science if you don’t “fail”!
Revise, Revise, Revise: Your project is never truly finished. There’s always something to improve on! So, with that in mind, take the comments and suggestions you received from the judges or other people and revise your paper, board, presentation, etc. before you go on to the next level. A simple way to get more advice and insightful comments is to present to friends, family members, peers, or teachers. It’s easy to get into a “tunnel vision mindset” when you’re spending so much time a specific topic so it’s nice to have a fresh set of ears and eyes that can provide you with useful recommendations!
Dress to Impress: This might sound like a no-brainer but it’s definitely one of the most important elements of competing. Even if you have no idea what you’re talking about (let’s hope that’s not the case), you’ll at least look the part. If you take the time to make yourself look presentable, you won’t have to worry about whether or not you’re underdressed or if you wore the right pair of socks. As my science fair partner likes to say, “You have to feel fabulous before you can do fabulously.”
Maintain Eye Contact: Competitions mean long days for both the competitors and the judges. Look at the judges while you’re talking; it lets them know that you’re engaged in the conservation at hand. Don’t stare at the wall behind them rehearsing the script you wrote and memorized at 12 AM the night before. It’s the little things that matter right?
Know Your Stuff: There’s usually some downtime between regional, state, and the international level competitions. Trust me, it’s easier than you expect to completely forget what your own project is about. A few days before you compete or even on the day of, make sure to review any important points and information. The last thing you want to do is to turn around and read off your board when you don’t know the answer to a question!
Paint the Big Picture: Yea, I know I said “it’s the little things that matter” in tip #2 but just like everything else in this interminable universe, there are exceptions. Don’t get caught up in the details of your project unless the judges ask. Most of the time, the judges are on a schedule and have a set amount of time with their interviewees. Because of this, you want to format your spiel effectively:
- Introduce the bigger problem. What influenced you to create your project? Start off strong with a statistic or a personal story and follow up with background information.
- Explain how your project relates to the problem (purpose and hypothesis).
- Briefly explain your methodology. The judges will ask you to elaborate if they have questions.
- Spend time on the results: this is the part that the judges want to know about.
- Make your conclusion compelling and powerful. What’s the one idea or concept you want the judges to take away with them? How does your project stand out from the rest?
- Don’t be afraid to mention any road bumps or “failures” you had along the way! Tell your story. These are indications that you’re doing real science.
- Utilize your board while you’re talking! Point at diagrams or charts and show them pictures. It keeps the judges interested and helps them visualize whatever you’re talking about.
Teamwork: If you’re working with a partner or in a group, you will be judged on teamwork. On judging day, distribute the information accordingly so everyone has a chance to speak. If you’re doing a digital presentation, a good rule of thumb is to limit the amount a person speaks to no more than 3 consecutive slides. When the judges ask questions, take turns! The judges are trying to determine if everyone in the group knows the material so if one person doesn’t talk, sometimes they will direct a question to that person.
Questions: The judges will interrupt you while you’re talking. Don’t let it throw you off! Simply answer their question and continue with your spiel. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t try to make up an answer. It’s totally ok to say, “I don’t the answer to that question”. It’s also acceptable to answer the question with a theory or idea you have but just make sure to reiterate that you don’t know for sure!
Be Confident: Communicating results and being able to sell what you did makes all the difference! Sound excited but not to the extent where your spiel sounds too scripted. If you’re competing at state and national level competitions, it likely means your research is highly regarded; the judges already know that you are doing amazing research and that should translate in the way you present your project. Remember that you are the currently the world’s leading expert in the research you’ve done! Don’t let the other projects intimidate you! The hard-to-read titles with gene symbols and chemical names may sound impressive but in the end, it’s all about how effectively you communicate your research.
Scientists are tasked with the considerable job of creating a blueprint for the future by creating, discovering, and researching novel applications but you should make it your goal to learn from the experiences that are less indicative but arguably more meaningful aspects of being a scientist. Ultimately, participating in science competitions should be a learning experience! The networking of people and ideas is the essence of scientific research. Take the time to meet other people, share ideas, and be prideful because you are apart of the community that is shaping the fate of the world!
 Marshmallow Challenge Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0_yKBitO8M