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Finding an Idea for an Advanced Science Fair Project

We gathered six extremely successful high school science competition participants to discuss their experiences finding an idea for their science fair project. The conversation covered a broad range of topics, from where to find ideas to the importance of originality.

MODERATOR: For a middle school student doing his or her first science fair project, coming up with the idea is often considered the hardest part of the entire project. Is finding a project idea just as difficult for the advanced competitions, and if so, how did you go about it?

VINNIE: Looking for an idea can be one of the most difficult parts of a project. It can involve several hours, days, and weeks of reading and learning background information. After learning the basic background information and theory, you need to become familiar with the problems, attempted solutions, and methods used within your respective sub field. Knowing what other researchers within your field are doing is essential. I spend a significant amount of time just reading; resources such as Google Scholar are extremely useful.

YIHE: Finding a project idea is indeed difficult, but I believe that if someone is really interested in an area of science and thinks hard about it, she or he will not suffer from a lack of ideas. With that said, oftentimes the difficulty of finding an idea is due to the generality of one's area of interest, so try something more specific that you are particularly interested in. For instance, instead of physics, start with thermodynamics when looking for an idea. One should also take note that, after the initial inspiration, the idea may still need to be molded many times before it becomes a practical research plan.

BENJAMIN: If you begin working in a lab, many professors have a general idea of what project they want you to work on. However, they do give you some freedom in terms of methodology and investigating different avenues for solving problems.

AMBER: Coming up with an idea for advanced competitions was slightly more difficult for me, mostly because I was pickier about finding a project that I would like, one that was original, and would end up being useful to people in the long run. I definitely spent a lot of time looking through possible ideas and determining the pros and cons of each project idea, relative to my experience, my interests, and whether I would feel comfortable discussing the scientific concepts with judges. In order to be a good presenter, I knew my project couldn't be too broad, but I also didn't want to discuss certain topics with the judges, such as if I did a biology project about particular parts of the human body (that's just me). I particularly looked for unique, novel, research topics. I did some background research on each topic before deciding on one. In the end, I chose to explore a "mistake" from my previous project.

For a more advanced project, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether it will end up being original or not. There are a few ways to achieve originality. You can start out with an already original project; however, your original idea might not end up being useful (maybe your new technique is too difficult or pricey, or maybe the experiment just doesn't pan out). Of course, you won't know until you try your best. Originality can also come from redesigning and improving something that already exists. The most important part is to find a project topic that is interesting to you, otherwise you will be miserable working on it. Originality can come later if you work hard and brainstorm ideas on how to improve your research. As for my own experience, I took a chance on my project topic. My project started out original, but it only became a useful, original technique after months and months of work.

One of the reasons I stress originality is because my first ISEF-qualifying project was not original research. I repeated an experiment that another research team had done, and I did not do anything outstanding to improve upon their work or discover something new. Although my project was scientifically more advanced than the student's next to me was, he ended up winning an award because his seemingly simpler project was original work. Winning isn't everything of course, and you can't control your judges' opinions, but you do have control over the quality of your research and whether the research you do has the potential to advance science. If you want to do cutting-edge research to improve scientific understanding and get the most out of it in terms of publishing an original paper, etc., you need to do original research. Of course, repeating an experiment to verify results is important, but generally the people who advance a field and receive the credit are the ones who come up with the idea first and publish first. If you are going to repeat an experiment, you want to improve it in some way, too. You might be able to contribute original work while repeating another person's experiment, but you might not know until you've put in lots of work. Unless you already have an idea of how to improve an experiment, you might want to choose a topic that starts out as original, assuming you are dead set on doing original work. Again, however, the most important part is to find a project that excites you and motivates you.

TERIK: I don't think finding a project idea for one of the top competitions is any harder than it is to come up with one for the school science night; you have to find something you are passionate about and then run with it. The only difference between the project you do for the school science night and a project you take to ISEF, STS, Siemens, or JSHS is honest-to-goodness hard work and an insatiable curiosity. I honestly believe that someone could make a baking soda and vinegar volcano, start asking questions about it, and pursue those questions until he or she reached a level where there is an unknown. Then design an experiment to answer that unknown and take that to a top competition. The key to any sort of success is hard work and a drive to know why.

I think that there can be too much emphasis placed on trying to pick a project that will "do well." Worrying about picking a topic that the judges will like does not do much to help you! Choosing to do a project on alternative energy just because it's a "hot topic" right now doesn't necessarily mean you are going to do well. The key to doing well is to pick a project that you—you!—are genuinely interested in and work hard on it. After all, the things judges "want" to see or "like" will vary from fair to fair and from year to year. If you are actually interested in what you are doing, you will work harder on it. That hard work will translate into success. If you are passionate about what you are researching, you will study your subject deeply and as you do so, you will come to know why people should care about what you are doing. Your work needs to be significant, but that significance does not come by picking a pseudo-"significant" topic. Significance comes as you learn your subject intimately enough to become cognizant of why what you are doing matters.

AMBER: Terik, when you mention the vinegar and baking soda volcano, do you mean that the traditional project morphs into something much more complex and original after doing research and learning more about the area? I'm sure there are some things people don't know about this common experiment, but it could be very difficult to make an original project out of a baking soda/vinegar volcano that changes science in some way. Perhaps you'll be excited about volcanoes or chemistry from this project, but then presumably you'd learn more about the different areas of research about volcanoes or chemistry, and then the topic you choose would be very different from the simple volcano. The vinegar/baking soda volcano would be a catalyst to get the ideas flowing in your head. It is possible that you could take the traditional experiment and come out with some new theory or technique, but it is very unlikely. For middle school and elementary school science fairs, a traditional volcano experiment with some creative twists would make an OK project. For high school fairs and up, however, I think that you should only use the simpler experiment as a way to start brainstorming more advanced topics. Terik?

TERIK: I definitely agree that a traditional/basic/perhaps even trite project can morph into something more complex and original after doing research and learning about that area of science. But I would also say that I am nearly certain that if you pursued one of these topics far enough, you would arrive at an area where you could make a significant contribution. If, for example, you started with the baking soda and vinegar volcano and then pursued it to the point where you were using femtosecond laser pulses to study the reaction mechanisms at an atomic and molecular level, I think it would be very possible to contribute something new to the body of science. What you are terming "simple" projects can be just as much of an impetus for an advanced project as the content of a refereed article. If you pursue the topic far enough, you will eventually find an area of science where there are unanswered questions. It might (and probably will) take you longer to get to those unanswered questions from a seemingly simple project than it will from a refereed article, but you will get there. It takes driving curiosity and intense passion to get to original material, but you will get there if you work at it long enough. It's a process of iteration—asking a question, finding the answer, asking more questions based on that answer, finding the answer to those questions, continuing to ask questions, etc. until you get to questions that you can't find the answer to in the literature. When you get to that point, you know you have found an area in which you can make an original contribution. This method has the benefit of intimate familiarity with the literature, meaning that once you get to the unknown, you will be so familiar with the literature and methods of the field that you can not only design a high-quality and meaningful experiment, but will also be able to discuss that area of science at a very, very deep level. The driving force is curiosity. That is what allows a dedicated and dynamic student to pursue his or her interests to the point of originality.

A note about doing projects at labs or as part of programs like the Research Science Institute (RSI): If you are going to work in a lab, you may be given a project to work on instead of being allowed to select one. This may also be true if you participate in a summer research program at a university. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of. If you end up with a project that you don't like, do your best to make the best of the situation; attitude makes a huge difference.

MODERATOR: When someone reads a news report about an award-winning science fair project, the article is often written by someone who doesn't make an attempt to explain the underlying science, so the winning project titles themselves can sound very intimidating. It's pretty easy to come away with the impression that only a superhuman student could possibly do such work. Are you superhuman? What's the reality about a winning project?

JANELLE: I am most certainly not superhuman! Rather, I have an earnest desire to understand, ponder, connect, and solve. I am immensely passionate and dedicated to all endeavors that I pursue, but not to an extent that goes beyond the bounds of human capability. Through honest effort, effervescent curiosity, and the proper research setting, any student has the potential to see his or her idea for a science fair project come to fruition. It is important to emphasize that a winning project is elusive, and I truly hope that just finding a winning project is not the principal goal of a student who wishes to engage in research. The actual process of researching, experimenting, and forging your own scientific pathway is so rewarding—that should be the ultimate goal. In addition to potentially helping society, it piques your passion, hones your scientific thinking and writing skills, and cultivates a solid work ethic that endures for a lifetime.

AMBER: I'm not a superhuman :-). A lot of the more complicated sounding projects are actually very simple; it's just that the titles themselves are very specific. For example, many of the supposedly complicated projects simply discuss a specific bacteria or organism, names which can sound intimidating. A great science fair project requires a ton of work, but if you work hard, you can do it. Most of my science fair project subjects were very new to me and I had to do a lot of research to understand everything. There were many times when I had to read something over and over again in order to fully comprehend the information. Once you put in the hard work, you will be an expert about your project. People who do these amazing projects are smart, but they aren't superhuman. Hundreds and even thousands of hours of work is necessary to create an amazing project.

YIHE: I am in no way superhuman (well, except maybe in the massive amount of sleep I seem to need!). I believe that anyone can come up with interesting ideas and conduct research, as long as the interest and motivation is there. But one should always keep in mind that judging is very subjective. What one judge considers to be a winning science fair project might not be to another. But if you've focused on quality and have learned a lot, you can be assured that your project is a "winning" project whether or not you win an award. So don't judge the quality of a project on how many awards it has received, but rather how much you have enjoyed and learned from it.

BENJAMIN: Project titles and the papers themselves are meant to be understood by the people who are familiar with the subject, so even if they sound intimidating, they're really just very specific. When you begin a science fair project, the topic probably won't make much sense to you at first either; but when you begin researching and reading background articles, you become somewhat of a Subject Matter Expert (SME). It is a great feeling when professors or fellow lab members come to you after a while if they need a "refresher" about a certain specific topic. As for the media, it is important to have a sound bite prepared so you can help them report on your project in a way that their readers will understand, and thus, be interested. A sound bite is a sentence or two, explaining what you did, in "layman's terms."

VINNIE: I think people look at titles and are intimidated because they're not familiar with the terminology of that particular field, even though a student may be using what's considered very basic terminology within that particular field.

Like most successes, the "secret" behind a winning project is hard work, dedication, and persistence. For me, I would work on my project for several hours daily (at least during the summer, and a little less during the school year). For example, I would take academic papers and books to school to read during free time; if I had scraps of paper, I would draw diagrams and work out math problems related to my work. Rather than setting aside a specific number of hours a day to work on research, I was constantly thinking about my research and how to make improvements. This desire to work so hard ultimately stems from motivation—if you enjoy the project topic, you'll be eager to put in the time.

Another important aspect of a winning project is presentation. While a student must be able to explain his or her project thoroughly and at a very high level, he or she must also be able to explain it in terms that are easily understood and not with just a bunch of jargon. Using your own words demonstrates that you are familiar enough with the high-level topic to communicate the science in understandable terms.

TERIK: Let me tell you right here, right now that I ain't a super hero! The only thing that makes me who I am is hard work. I work hard. Really hard. Really, really hard. I don't believe in fate and I don't believe that your circumstances define what you can be. Call me old-fashioned and out of touch for believing in the American Dream, but I believe that with a solid dose of reality and good, clean work, you can do whatever you want.

It is also very important to realize that the people who determine winning projects are the judges themselves. You could have one judge who loves your project and another who thinks it's the worst he or she has seen at the whole fair. It is not uncommon to do very well at one competition and not so well at another competition, so the idea of a "winning" project is really subjective.

MODERATOR: OK, I'm glad that none of you believe that you are superhuman! Did your success require some practice? More precisely, was your highest award-winning work your first science project? Your first advanced project? If it wasn't your first project, how did your earlier projects help you succeed at the highest levels of science competition?

TERIK: My highest award-winning project wasn't my first one, and it wasn't my last one. It was the one I worked hardest on. Sure, every experience was a time of learning, and I certainly became more and more confident in my presentation skills, but the deciding factor was the amount of work I put into my project.

JANELLE: I had immersed myself in scientific research at university laboratories for the past few summers. My highest award-winning work was my third advanced science project during high school, and it was also my most recent. Earlier projects, although they concerned other scientific disciplines, helped me in carrying out my most recent work. My prior experiences had made me quite familiar with laboratory techniques and standard laboratory procedures. Furthermore, I already knew how to maintain an organized lab notebook, actively plan and prepare for experimental protocols, and construct a research paper. This knowledge and these skills assisted me tremendously in my most recent research project because they serve as vital components of any research endeavor.

AMBER: If I don't count my 1st- and 2nd-grade science projects :-), my most successful one was my fourth science fair project, which originated from my third science fair project. My fourth project was spread over two years, so with all four projects, I've had 5 years worth of middle and high school science fairs. My most successful project was my second advanced project.

YIHE: No, it was not my first project. I had done other science projects that were not for competition purposes. Even though they were not as advanced, my earlier project definitely helped me with my highest award-winning science fair project, because it helped me gain a picture of how working in a lab feels and what to expect (namely, many more failures than I'd like) out of my research.

BENJAMIN: My first research project in high school that was conducted in a research lab was named a National Semifinalist in the Siemens Competition and third in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), so I was very fortunate to have my first also be my highest award-winning project. My experience with these competitions and in a research lab taught me how to take my research to the next level and what to keep in mind throughout the research for future projects.

VINNIE: My highest award-winning work was not my first science project, and not my first advanced project. My previous experience definitely helped lay the groundwork for future projects. Through my previous projects, I learned how to come up with ideas, how to conduct research, how to perform literature searches, how to write papers, and how to present research.

MODERATOR: Project ideas come from a variety of places. For instance, if you work in the laboratory of your mentor, he or she may suggest a topic for you, a simple project you do as a younger student can evolve into one that is much more complex, or doing a series of science projects might lead to one great project idea. How did you come up with your science fair project idea, and regardless of the source, what's the history behind it?

TERIK: I decided that I wanted to study impact cratering (how I got to that point is a very long story) and started finding out everything I could about it. Eventually, I got to the point where I knew enough to know what questions needed to be answered and then I decided to do so.

YIHE: I came up with my ideas through reading literature and having discussions with my mentors. I first came up with the rough concept, then my mentors and I went through my ideas and made them more practical.

BENJAMIN: The research I conducted was part of larger projects that were being conducted in my lab. My experience with projects at a younger age allowed to me to have a greater understanding of the scientific process and the quality of data that is needed to have valid research.

VINNIE: For this answer, I'll use my most recent research, which was a theoretical computer science project dealing with wireless sensor networks, as an example.

I first read about and became interested in wireless sensor networks (WSNs) in 9th grade, which led to an initial project (a simple software simulator). I continued experimental work in this field during 10th grade (I built a security system that integrated WSN technology and security cameras). Because I had done previous work in this field, I was familiar with how wireless sensor networks worked, and aware of existing problems.

I came across a paper in which the authors proposed using methods from a field of very abstract mathematics to analyze WSNs. This sparked my interest in using math to solve problems in WSNs. Analyzing WSNs with this type of mathematics was very new, so any work would have a high potential of being very original. I also noticed that there was a disparity between the theory side and the practical side. With my experimental and practical background with WSNs, I was able to combine it with the theory. In addition to pursuing a topic you are interested in, it is important is that your project is well defined. A project that is too specific might end up being trivial, whereas if a project is too broad, you run the risk of not being able to successfully complete your project.

AMBER: My idea actually came about from an accident. For my 2003 research project, I was using thin-layer chromatography (TLC) to track the progress of a reaction. I used a digital camera to take some pictures of the TLC plates to put on my display board. When I printed the pictures, I accidentally pushed a button in Photoshop, and one of the chemical spots turned blue while the rest stayed black (under UV light and using fluorescent TLC plates, the chemicals being analyzed look like black spots). I learned later that this button emphasized colors that the camera could see, but that my eyes could not. When searching for my next research project, I thought back to the weird incident and tried to figure out what it might mean. After doing some basic experiments, I realized that the chemical I was studying was fluorescent, and the fluorescent TLC plates were so much brighter than the chemical spot that my eyes could not see them; only the camera picked up on them. I started studying more fluorescent chemicals to see if I could detect the fluorescence with a digital camera. This formed the qualitative aspect of my project—I discovered that digital photography could help identify some chemicals on a TLC plate. I later developed the quantitative part when I learned about High-Performance TLC, and realized I might be able to turn regular TLC into an inexpensive qualitative- and quantitative-analysis tool. Sometimes accidents can be turned into great projects. Find a project that interests you. In order to do well in science competitions (and to have a publishable paper), you need to do original, unique research.

TERIK: I would add that you don't necessarily need to be answering a question that hasn't been answered before. Validation and replication of recent experiments can be very important, particularly if you increase the accuracy/precision of the result. Answering old questions in new ways can be very important, too. As can developing a new methodology or refining an existing one.

AMBER: But, originality is very important.

TERIK: I am not saying that originality isn't important. What I am saying is that simply thinking that in order to make a significant contribution you must be doing something that has never been done before is a mistake. If that were the case, then building newer, smaller, and faster computer chips wouldn't be important because computer chips have already been built. Making a significant contribution to the body of science may involve doing things that no one has ever done before, but more often than not, I would argue that many of the most significant contributions come from improving what is already extant. Making TLC faster, more accurate, more reliable, and easier to use, for example, was an improvement on existing technologies, not a completely new one. Amber, you were developing and refining existing methodologies and answering old questions in new ways. In my view, you were not doing something that hadn't been done before (TLC has most definitely been done before), you were improving existing technology, but still making a significant and unique contribution to the body of science. I think part of it has to do with how we are defining originality. My operating definition is, I think, a bit stricter than yours, Amber. Whether we're calling it original or significant, you must be contributing something new to the body of science in order to be successful.

MODERATOR: Let's stay on this thread. Creativity is valued at any science fair, but winning at the top science competitions requires a truly original, or as Terik points out a truly significant, contribution. If you want to succeed, your objective should be to achieve results that could be published in a scientific journal, or if you are doing an engineering project, your goal should be to develop a technology or device that fills an important unmet market need. With the inherently limited experience of a young student, how did you determine if your work could meet the standard for creativity?

VINNIE: To determine if your work meets the standard for creativity, you need to be familiar with the work of others. You should also try to solve a problem that hasn't been solved before, or if it has, find a better solution. Is there a method that people keep using that's not working or producing desired results? Is there a method used in some other field of science that could potentially benefit your work? An important aspect of creativity can be the multi-disciplinary nature of a project. Does your work bridge a gap between two (seemingly unrelated) fields? In engineering-related projects, it is important to be aware of the practicality of a solution, since, in many cases, you have limited resources. Even if you find a solution to an engineering problem, but the solution uses massive amounts of resources and can't be implemented in the real world, then it's not a very good solution.

I found that in the theoretical side of wireless sensor networks (WSNs), many papers made assumptions that don't hold true in real life. My work primarily dealt with locating communication gaps or "holes" in WSNs. Most of the papers I read assume ideal conditions (the wireless signal is perfect, the sensors are distributed in a certain manner, and so on). However, these conditions rarely, if ever, occur in real life. By being familiar with the experimental side of WSNs, I was able to use a certain characteristic to develop a mathematically rigorous solution to the "holes problem," which made none of the aforementioned assumptions, and which could be implemented today. Also, the applied side of the type of mathematics I used, algebraic topology, is still very much in its infancy, so it is very rare to see "practical" solutions using this type of mathematics. The source of all these ideas was initially from the literature. Be familiar with not only your own field, but with other fields as well. By reading more, I found out that my work can be applied to other fields, such as biology.

TERIK: I knew what I was doing was original because I'd done such a thorough search of the literature, that I knew what had and hadn't been done. To be quite honest, however, I didn't understand the significance of my work until other people helped me see it. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to be well-versed in the literature of your field.

AMBER: I specifically tried to choose a project where I could exercise creativity. My project was entirely new research, so I knew it was possible that it could be published. I didn't know if my project would go anywhere, but I had a hunch that if I could make my technique work, it would turn into a great project. After I completed all the work, some judges told me I should think about publishing it, as did my mentor, and I had been thinking about it myself, too. It took a lot more time to edit my paper and do a few extra experiments to get my paper accepted for publication, but I'm glad I put in the extra time.

YIHE: Before I carried out my research, I went through a vast array of publications to make sure that no one had done similar things before. Of course, reading that literature. And yep, I really hope to publish my research in a scientific journal.

BENJAMIN: Throughout my research in my senior year of high school, I was always thinking about how I could make my research unique and ultimately asked the question: "Are there processes I can change to make me more efficient?". I developed certain methodologies that are still in place in my lab today. They were able to make me and the lab users more efficient, and helped us reach accurate and consistent results. I urge students to review their methodologies to find more efficient ways of doing things and to really think about how their research is unique. Their research will be more valued if it has an impact on the scientific community.

MODERATOR: What are the most important characteristics of an award-winning topic at the top competitions such as ISEF, STS, Siemens, or JSHS? (We're not talking about the whole project here, just the topic, the question itself.)

TERIK: I think there are two things (and the first is more important than the second). First, the topic absolutely must be something you are interested in and passionate about, and second, the topic must be of significant value, something that will bring new knowledge to the field of science. In order to achieve success, you need to have solid science, a sound methodology, and significant applications.

AMBER: I think the best topics have four characteristics:

  1. Originality is a huge part of winning. Even people with simple projects that are innovative have the upper hand in winning. Projects that you didn't contribute creative energy to probably won't do as well.
  2. Complicated projects do not guarantee a win. As I said above, originality is key. Whether the project is "complicated" or not is something else entirely.
  3. Simple-looking projects could also be quite complex, even if you might not see it on the surface. As I said earlier, most people assume scary-sounding titles are complicated projects, but they often don't turn out to be. You actually have it more difficult with a complicated-sounding project since you will need to practice explaining your work to people who don't have a science background. That's not to say complexity is bad, but you should make sure your presentation is not confusing.
  4. The topic should be useful to the world in some way. You don't need to cure cancer, but you need to understand how your project could make an impact.

And remember, winning isn't everything! These competitions are so much fun in general that you should consider yourself lucky if you attend. Keep in mind that all judges are different and their scores are opinions. You should be proud of your work no matter what happens. The most important thing is that you do what you love, and if you do that and try your best, things will work out in the end. Your "ending" might not involve a medal or ribbon but something just as important, like an education and a new passion for science.

TERIK: I agree that a "complicated versus simple" mindset can lead to problems because you can get stuck in thinking that complexity is "better." As Amber points out, that is not necessarily true. The most important thing to do from a science perspective is to throw out worrying about complexity and instead, focus on ensuring that you have a very solid and broad understanding of the scientific concepts and principles behind your project and are able to lucidly explain why your results are what they are. This skill is crucial to success. Always make sure that you can answer the "why" questions. Why did ___ happen? Why should I care? Why did you do __?, etc.

YIHE: I think that as long as a topic interests you and your ideas are original, you will have a good chance of doing well in competitions. Remember never to fall into the trap of doing something that you think will "appease" the judges.

TERIK: Yihe, I couldn't agree more with your last sentence.

BENJAMIN: Projects that contribute to society or to the scientific community usually do better at these competitions. Judges want to see that students learned something from the experience and are passionate about their work. Students who conduct research for the sole purpose of having a "resumé builder" usually have a hard time hiding that from judges. Originality is also a key factor in the competition process.

VINNIE: I think important characteristics include the magnitude of the research topic (how "important" or significant is the topic?) and the creativity in the topic (is the topic multidisciplinary? Is it original? Or is it just a slight variation of something previously done?).

JANELLE: The topic should be original and it should be of interest to both the student and the scientific community.

MODERATOR: What's your most important piece of advice to someone looking for an advanced science competition topic?

AMBER: Several things are important:

  • Don't be afraid to try something new that might sound intimidating. You'll learn everything eventually. At the same time, don't go too far outside your comfort zone.
  • Choose a topic that interests you. The research will not be fun if you choose something that you think will win but that you do not enjoy.
  • Look at the pros and cons of each topic. Would you be able to gain access to all the equipment and materials you'd need? For example, I was limited to a kitchen tabletop experiment.
  • Look at judging criteria, which can help you understand what judges are looking for in a project, and which might help you narrow town a topic.

YIHE: Again, find something you are interested in and go for it! Let your passion and creativity guide you.

BENJAMIN: Research something that interests you. If you are passionate about your work, you will most likely have better research and be more willing to find solutions to problems. Others, including judges and the media, are also able to tell when a student is truly passionate about his or her work.

VINNIE: Be sure to do research in a field in which you are genuinely interested. You'll be motivated to work harder and you will enjoy your work. It's helpful to look at what people have done in the past so you can try to get an idea of the level of projects at advanced competitions. Try to get a hold of some papers or abstracts that students have previously written. I would also like to restate that performing literature searches and familiarizing yourself with the literature is extremely important in determining a topic for an advanced competition. Also, just because you don't know something, don't let that hold you back. Taking appropriate risks will benefit your research.

TERIK: It MUST, MUST, MUST be something you are interested in and passionate about. That passion is what will drive you to find the unanswered questions that need to be answered and as you answer them, you will make a contribution to science. Never let concerns about the significance of your work precede your personal passion. Passion will lead you to find unanswered questions and as you seek to answer them, your work will become significant.


Amber Hess Amber Hess was a Mentor in the Science Buddies Online Mentoring Program for three years. A passionate science student, she has won awards at many prestigious science competitions. In 2005 she was an Intel Science Talent Search Finalist (one of only 40 students in the entire country), a semi-finalist for the Siemens Westinghouse competition, and she won a First Place Grand Award in Chemistry at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which she also attended in 2003. She has qualified to compete at the California State Science Fair five times, winning 4th, 3rd, and two 1st place awards. Amber graduated from MIT in 2009 with a BS in Chemical Engineering.
Benjamin Pollack Benjamin Pollack was a Mentor in the Science Buddies Online Mentoring Program for two years. In addition to being named 2nd Place National Finalist for teams in the 2005-2006 Siemens Competition, he has also won Third Place and Fourth Place Grand Awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), as well as a special award from the Society of Technical Communication. Benjamin is now attending the University of Rochester.
Janelle Schlossberger Janelle Schlossberger was president of her school's Science Honor Society, editor-in-chief of a district-wide literary and art magazine, and a member of Science Olympiad, French Honor Society, and National Honor Society. An accomplished violinist and pianist, she was a finalist in the DuPont Challenge Science Essay Competition. In addition to being 1st Place National Finalist in the Siemens Competition, she also won a 4th Place Grand Award at the 2008 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Janelle is proficient in French and plans to study physics in the Harvard class of 2012.
Terik Daly Terik Daly competed at Intel ISEF three different times and won numerous awards each year, including a "Best of Category" at ISEF 2006. He was a semifinalist in both the Intel STS and Siemens Competition and competed at the California State Science Fair for several consecutive years, winning awards including "Best of Fair" in 2005. Terik is currently an undergraduate at Brigham Young University majoring in Geology. His research interests include the study of residual lunar volcanism, transient lunar phenomena, and chemical speciation in meteorite and micrometeorite impacts.
Vinnie Ramesh Vinnie Ramesh, MIT class of 2012, is passionate about research. He has won multiple awards in major science competitions including Second Place Grand Award in Computer Science at the 2008 Intel ISEF, Semifinalist in the 2008 Intel Science Talent Search, and Western Regional Finalist in the 2007 Siemens Competition to name a few. When not working on his research Vinnie likes to spend his time fencing, reading, and playing video games.
Yihe Dong Yihe Dong enjoys research and writing. She has received 1st Place and Best of Category Awards at the 2007 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), and a 1st Place Award at the 2008 ISEF. Yihe is a finalist at the 2008 Intel Science Talent Search (STS). She is very grateful to her research mentors at the University of Georgia and the dedicated staff at Science Buddies for making her dreams reachable. Yihe is a member of the Princeton class of 2012.