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Confused on how to progress from finding a topic + seeking a mentor + making the deadline??

Postby SallyM » Wed Nov 23, 2016 8:11 pm

Hi there,
I'm in the 10th grade and I recently decided my subject area for my hopefully-qualifying-for-Intel-ISEF project: blindness. I decided on this topic because my grandfather suffers from retinal degeneration and he's gone blind in one eye. I'm also afraid that this is hereditary, and it's been called to my attention that this is a big problem for many people world. It is so critical for our eyes to be functioning correctly, and I want to become a surgeon some day. Sight is honestly so beautiful and I really want to help restore the vision of others.
While that is my subject area, it still feels quite broad. I've done some researching and I've made a list of the possible sub-areas that I can look into:
- Correcting refractive errors
- Correcting cataracts
- Improve neuroprotection in patients whose vision is still good
- Embryonic stem cells could be used to build new retail pigmented epithelial cells that nourish retinal visual cells and absorb light ~ that can be transplanted into a patient (kind of nearing towards this as an aspiring surgeon)
- Prosthetics can restore function of individuals who have lost their vision use retinal prostheses. (Unsure about this proposal because I know nothing about coding/engineering?)
- Gene therapy (this is a stretch)
- Stem cell research (oh boy)

And when I decide on one sub-area to focus on, how do I delve into it? How far should I go into learning about the anatomy of the eye? Right now I'm taking a course on Neurobiology on Coursera to understand how information is transferred from the eye to the brain. I don't have access to much info about eyes, besides anatomy. In all honesty, how do people go from rock-bottom like me to creating award winning science fair projects??
And how long should the experimental process of the project be, compared to the time it takes to gather research/background/seeking a mentor/talk to people/learn lab procedures/set up project display? Do I even have enough time left?
The Intel ISEF qualifying science fair in my area is March 25th and that's my deadline. I'm not sure if I should be seeking a mentor immediately or until I come up with a decent proposal + lab procedures for restoring vision in others (oh boy).
And speaking of mentors, I have no idea on how that works. Is it alright if I can't find a mentor in my area that specializes in ophthalmology research? And once I do find a possible mentor, how do I brush upon the subject of asking me to mentor them in the email? I hope you understand my confusion.
I mean, when you put it in perspective, why would a very busy scientist want to spend time with an overly ambitious high schooler that knows little to nothing compared to them? How would they lend me lab equipment? How much time should I be spending at their lab? Do you think they would ask me to do extra work for them in exchange for them mentoring me? And say they did have a really good idea for a project, how would they feel about me carrying the work out and taking most of the credit? I want my project to be original yet contributive research, not something "assigned" by a professor?
Overall, how do I convince them that mentoring me wouldn't be a waste of time? That I am someone they can rely on?

I would highly appreciate a detailed answer in response to my detailed post. Thank you for reading!

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Re: Confused on how to progress from finding a topic + seeking a mentor + making the deadline??

Postby tdaly » Fri Dec 09, 2016 9:11 am

Hi SallyM,

Thank you for taking the time to make such a detailed post. I'll do what I can to post a similarly-detailed response. If you haven't already, I highly encourage you to read the Advanced Project Guide that Science Buddies has written: ... ndex.shtml

Choosing a topic that you are already interested in is a useful way to start a project. Your passion will motivate you to work harder on the project, which will in turn increase the quality of your project. Furthermore, your passion will come through as you talk to the judges. All of the those are big pluses when it comes to a science fair project.

I am not a medical doctor or neuroscientist, so I cannot easily give you specific advice about which subtopic to pursue. But, I have more than a decade of experience competing in top science fairs like the Intel ISEF and mentoring students who have won significant prizes at such fairs. Based on that experience, I can give some answers to some of your questions.

First, you asked about how deeply you should delve into the specific topic you choose to focus on. My response would be to delve as deeply as you can, within the constraints of the time you have available. Doing a Coursera class about neurobiology is a great way to learn more about the topic. Think about specific questions you have, write them down, and then try to find answers to those questions. As you find the answers to those questions, even more questions will come to your mind. Write those down, too, and go hunting for answers. Hunting for answers might include doing Google searches, reading Wikipedia pages, borrowing and reading textbooks, reading parts of encyclopedias, talking to teachers, talking to other adults you know, and reaching out to experts in the field. People go from "rock bottom" to creating award-winning science fair projects through a combination of time, effort, and mentoring.

There aren't hard and fast rules about how long experiments should take relative to the time it takes to gather background research, learn procedures, make a display, etc. I think you will find that many of these tasks overlap in time. For example, a few weeks ago I spent two weeks in a colleague's lab learning a new method for analyzing very tiny amounts of a certain element in a set of rocks that I am studying. I read up on the method before going to learn the technique, which involved a lot of work in clean rooms. As I learned the method, I would find myself asking new questions. So, in the evening and during lunch I would go back to the literature to find out answers. Or, I would ask my colleague. Now that I am writing up the results of that research project, I am again going back to the literature to get additional information as I realize I need to know more about a specific topic. So, you will probably keep doing "background research" throughout the entire time that you work on your project. Based on my experience, however, it is important to leave yourself ample time to work on your display board. If you work on getting more data and running new experiments right up through the night before the fair, your display and presentation will be of a poorer quality, and you will be less likely to win. I would leave yourself two to three weeks to work on your display and presentation. (But, this depends on how much time you have to spend on the project.) I suspect that time will be tight, but that you may be able to put a project together by the time your fair comes in March.

As far as your questions about mentoring go, the worries and questions that you have are normal. It's intimidating to go to someone you don't know and ask them to be a mentor for a project - and that's OK. Please take a look at the advice that I've given to other students who have had similar concerns about finding and working with a mentor. I think you'll find that I answer many of your questions in those posts. If not, then let me know, and I'll be happy to discuss more.


Post back as you have other questions come up about working with a mentor or doing a project for a top science competition. I will get an email whenever you make a post on this topic. You can expect me to reply within about 24 hours during Monday-Friday.

Working on a science fair project for a top competition can be extremely rewarding, and I'm excited that you are setting out on that path!
All the best,

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