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Ronit Abramson — From My Backyard to the Intel ISEF

by Ronit Abramson

The first time I heard about science fair was on the news one night as the broadcaster interviewed the winners of the International Science and Engineering Fair. As the winner talked about his project, I was completely overwhelmed with the scale of his project. He had spent several years in a very prestigious laboratory and as I stood transfixed in front of the television, I thought, "Well, that's one thing I will never be able to do." I put science fair out of my mind as something out of my league. But seven years later, as a sophomore in high school, my biology teacher encouraged me to enter a project into the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair. After she mentioned it, I couldn't stop thinking about ideas. Everywhere I went and everything I read seemed to suggest topics that I was interested in. But when I started listing my project topics, I struggled to develop an actual project. Either the topic was too advanced or the idea had already been tested. I struggled to find a project that was innovative and intriguing, yet one I was actually capable of doing myself.

Finally, something clicked. It was late in December, just six weeks before screening for my regional fair, when I realized I didn't have to do an entirely new project, just look for an improvement or change one aspect of an existing technology. My teacher, Ms. Slijk, mentioned she was doing her masters thesis on diatoms. I looked up information on diatoms (a kind of unicellular algae that form intricate cell walls out of silica) and was instantly intrigued.

After some more research, I read about how scientists were discovering male fish with female sex organs downstream from pharmaceutical plants and hospitals and decided I wanted to address the issue of pharmaceutical runoff. My final project idea: using diatoms to detect pharmaceuticals in streams and rivers. I worked hard on my project—spending hours reading scientific journal articles for background research and counting thousands of cells to collect my data. I then spent even more hours crafting my report, realizing that this was a chance to explain my many hours of work.

I submitted my project to the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair, and anxiously waited for a screening assignment. When my project was accepted, I was ecstatic. But as judging day approached, I was terrified that someone would realize my title "Use of Epilithic Diatoms as Biological Indicators of Pharmaceutical Runoff," was really just a façade for "Can algae tell us when there is Tylenol® in the water?"

My project, done exclusively in my backyard and with a simple light microscope from my school, ended up winning the top award at my fair, seven professional society awards, and advancement to both the California State Science Fair and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), where I won further awards! My simple, homemade project was widely recognized, widely challenged, but people were curious about pharmaceutical runoff and I had done enough thorough research to be able to respond to their queries.

After my incredible experiences in local, state, and international science fairs, I decided to expand my research. I knew my backyard project had a lot of environmental variables, so I wanted to continue my research in a laboratory. I contacted local professors doing related research and asked them for assistance. I told them about my previous project and my successes at science fairs. Dr. Mark Hildebrand at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography emailed me back and after meeting with him, he offered me a lab bench. I completed my project under his supervision and again entered it in the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair. Again, my project won the top award, eight special awards, and advancement to the state science fair and the Intel ISEF. Following this success, I continued to work in the lab and was offered a paid position for the summer, during which I developed an idea for my third science fair project for my senior year. This third project not only won awards at my regional and state fairs, but it was also chosen as "Best in Category" at Intel ISEF. This was a huge honor and I am most proud of it because it all began with a little homemade experiment in my backyard. Just because you don't have expensive equipment or an eminent lab doesn't mean you can't win top awards or advance to those opportunities in future years.

Ronit Abramson
Ronit Abramson has won many science fair awards, including Best of Category at the 2009 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) and Student of the Year at the California State Science Fair. She is a member of the Yale class of 2013.