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Amber Hess' Intel ISEF Blog

by Amber Hess


This blog is about my participation in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (or ISEF). I also did a blog about the Intel Science Talent Search, so check that out, too. I participated at Intel ISEF when I was a sophomore and was fortunate to win a special award from Kodak, but I really wanted to win a Grand Award. I met so many people who inspired me to become more interested in science. The whole experience was so much fun I was determined to compete again! My friend Ilang beat me last year at the regional fair, but this year both of us qualified for Intel ISEF, and it was an awesome experience. My two ISEF participations were two of the best weeks of my life. I hope others are motivated to compete in science competitions after reading my blog. The organizers really make the competitions fun—it is not geeky in the least! Don't believe me? Just read on...

I thought it would be good to link to some introductory material first, before jumping into my day-by-day journal.

What is ISEF? Intel says this: "The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) is the world's largest pre-college celebration of science. Held annually in May, the Intel ISEF brings together over 1,400 students from more than 40 nations to compete for scholarships, tuition grants, internships, scientific field trips and the grand prize: a $50,000 college scholarship. Science Service founded the ISEF in 1950 and is very proud to have Intel as the title sponsor of this prestigious, international competition."

Here are some relevant links:

My Blog

This is an entry from my Intel STS blog that shows how I felt qualifying for ISEF, and it also gives some background information.

March 6: I have winter break right now. I just finished my finals, so I do not have to worry about grades for a little while. The last week has been extremely stressful. I have been preparing my project for the Monterey County Science Fair and for Intel STS. Ahhh!!! At least county is finally finished. I won first place in chemistry, Ilang (my friend from another school that I met last year during science fair season) and Amanda tied for first place in the behavioral sciences category (winning first in a category allows you to go to the California State Science Fair, so we will all get to go!). And the best part is that Ilang and I are both going to Intel ISEF!!! ISEF is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and it is going to be held in May in Phoenix, Arizona. The top two projects in the senior division are chosen for this "grand prize" award. I was fortunate to go to Intel ISEF in 10th grade and it was the best week of my life! I am soooo happy I get to go again. Ilang went last year, and so she understands how much fun Intel ISEF is, too. We should have a blast!


May 8: I ran into some problems at the Monterey Airport. To make sure my board did not get squished, I wanted to check it at the gate. Well, as the airport officer dusted it to check for dangerous materials, the machine started beeping! I had never heard it go off before, so I knew immediately that something was wrong. The lady looking at my board was confused because it was registering some type of explosive, but she could not find anything. Luckily they had seen that it was a science fair board, plus I am an innocent-looking 18-year-old, so they did not arrest me or anything. I had to fill out a form so they could track me, and I was searched! I think my board case must have run into some strange substances when it was shipped back from Washington D.C. from Intel STS. It was an interesting experience. :-)

It is so nice only having to fly a few hours instead of ten, like I did for the D.C. trip! I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona in the afternoon. There were ISEF greeters at the baggage claim to make sure we had transportation. It took a while to get our bags, but that was OK. I ran into Karl Plank from Intel STS (there were nine finalists from Intel STS that attended ISEF). It was nice to see someone familiar.

I visited a friend I know in Phoenix, so that was fun. I hadn't seen him for a few years. He had a graduation party at his house so I got to meet all of his friends, too. I had a great time.

At the hotel I finally ran into Ilang and her family. Ilang and I are staying in the same room, so it will be soooo much fun!

Tonight was the ISEF student mixer. Everyone buys pins before leaving home for ISEF and then we all trade with each other. I exchanged with people from everywhere, including China, Japan, Israel, Cuba, and Hawaii. Ilang and I gave out pins that were extremely popular. They are these red lips that blink if you push a button; the local produce company "Fresh Kissed" makes them. I think Ilang and I ended up with at least 100 pins each! The foreign countries' pins are the most popular, so you need to grab them quickly. Florida always has a ton of people at ISEF; it seems like everyone you run into is from there. Most finalists put the pins on their neck lanyard, but Ilang and I gave up on that, so we just put ours in bags to waste less time. I feel sorry for the students who do not bring any pins—if you go to ISEF bring plenty! I ran into someone from Santa Cruz who I knew from the 2003 ISEF; it was great to catch up with her. I love this part!

After the pin trading I set up my project at my booth even though it was almost 10:00 PM (ISEF has extended hours for many activities, including the student computer lounge).

Some tips:

ISEF has MANY rules you should be aware of. They are very picky about what you display on your board. Before you attend ISEF, carefully go through the rule book. Make sure you do not have any acknowledgements on your board (no thanking parents, labs, teachers, or mentors in any way). Also be sure to have a description that explains where you got all of your images. I had "Image Acknowledgements" and it explained how I had taken or made all the images myself. One of reviewers was about to tell me I could not have any acknowledgements on the board, but then she realized it was just for the pictures. But if you do something similar, put "Image Credits" because the word "acknowledgement" just sets them off.

May 9: For the first few days of ISEF there are lots of lectures and other activities you can sign up for. Ilang, my mom, and I went horseback riding in the desert. We had to get up relatively early, which was hard. We grabbed some coffee from Starbucks (they don't make it very hot in Phoenix, so it was the perfect drinking temperature) and then got onto the bus. After 40 minutes or so we arrived at a small ranch. While the first group headed out, we tried horseshoes, shooting each other (ok, not really, there was a plastic barrier in between us), and throwing axes. We also talked with some students from Kentucky, and made some new friends. When the other group came back, they gave us a horse and had us practice riding around the enclosure a bit.

My horse's name was Little Big Man, and it described him perfectly. He thought he was the biggest horse there, even though he was quite small! I haven't ridden in a long time, so it was an interesting experience. I had to figure out how to move with the horse when he trotted because my butt kept bouncing around in the saddle (and it HURT). Little Big Man wasn't very nice—whenever another horse came behind him he would buck (he did this four times, and I almost fell off!). It was fun, but I was extremely happy to get off of that horse. Now I have really bad sores on my ankles because they were rubbing against the saddle. My butt also hurts quite badly. Boy am I going to be stiff tomorrow! While walking to lunch I met a guy named Scott from Maryland who is going to Harvard next year. He is very funny.

After taking a shower and getting the horse smell off us, we headed off to the "Excellence in Science and Technology Panel." The panel was made up of many Nobel Laureates and other prestigious scientists. We sat in a whole row filled with friends mostly from RSI (, Intel STS, and other people we had met. RSI is the Research Science Institute held at Caltech and MIT over the summer, where students get to work on a research project with a professor). The audience got to ask questions and then the panel would answer. It was interesting to hear about their childhoods and their opinions on things like technology. The most important thing I learned is that even though Nobel Prize winners are smart, they are also people, just like us. Just like all of the students at ISEF, they had to conquer problems in order to achieve their accomplishments. My favorite quote was from Doug Osheroff (Nobel Prize winner in Physics) who stated: "Failure is an invitation by nature to try something new." He also said: "It's not how often you succeed, it's how often you attempt things." Dudley Herschbach (winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry) had a really interesting metaphor about music and science: "You have to love it, master the instrument, understand the culture. You will play some wrong notes, but that's OK. It's part of the joy of the chance to do it." Great advice! Other panelists emphasized the importance of doing work that one enjoys, for you cannot plan on receiving awards. Those who do so suffer many disappointments. It is important to persevere even when others say you are wrong; however, one must also know when to cut ones losses (it's a balance). Alan Kay suggested that it's unwise to pick a role model based on gender or ethnicity—personality is far more important. Ilang went up to the stage afterwards and got a picture with one of them. So we got to see and meet Nobel Prize winners! Quite cool. Here is a summary of the panel:

Next was the Opening Ceremony. I remember my sophomore year when ISEF was in Cleveland, Ohio. Everyone was complaining about going to the ceremony (how many ceremonies have you been to that have not been boring?), but seriously, it is sooooo much fun. They have a huge screen that they project things on, and they have cool music in the background. Sally Ride (the first American woman astronaut in outer space), gave a very inspiring speech about going for your dreams. We saw numerous pictures taken from outer space, and they were very beautiful—it is amazing how different everything looks from far away. My favorite part during the opening ceremony is when the different countries are represented. Each country has representatives that run up on stage with a banner about their county. There is also a video playing in the background where natives say something to the participants; some of them are really funny. What a busy day! I'm heading to bed now.

May 10: I have been reviewing a lot of my material to prepare myself for judging. By the way, I AM extremely stif from yesterday. :-)

Around lunchtime I went to the Intel STS reunion that was set up for us. It was great seeing my friends. I brought Ilang with me (she at least entered her research in Intel STS). Scott was also there, he knows some of the people from RSI, many of whom were STS finalists. We had a very interesting conversation about math—the reporter watching us must have been saying to himself "Wow, these people are really intellectual." That's okay, intelligent conversations rock!

For dinner there was a barbeque-type event with music. We hung out with Scott, and Ilang's project neighbor also joined us (her board is right next to his). His name is Bruno and he lives in Brazil. Scott's friend Nick, who is going to MIT next year, also sat with us. That was great because I have also chosen to go to MIT, and I love meeting people from different places! Already, it seems like I have met dozens of new students! The picnic dinner was a lot of fun. I wish I could have stayed longer, but Ilang and I had to go back to the hotel and study more.

May 11: Today was the judging. It was a very long day because the judging is ALL day. 9:00–12:00, 1:30–4:00, and then 5:00–6:30. I had about 10 actual category judges (they judge the Grand Awards), and more than 20 if you count the special awards judges who stopped by. Some of them asked me hard questions, but I figured most of them out. Most of the difficult questions dealt with the limitations in my technique and how I could correct them. So I would spend some time thinking about that if you are going to ISEF. One of the judges asked me how and why some of my chemical spots might disappear over time. Eventually, I realized that oxidation would make them dimmer. I also had to explain to a lot of people about the detection limits of my technique and some of the scientists suggested I do a signal-to-noise ratio for future study. Some of the judges did not understand how I did my calibration curves (they did calibration curves differently), so I had to discuss that with them, too. Even though I am always a bit nervous for the judging, it was fun. I like being with people who appreciate my work. It was crazy because as I was talking with one of my judges about what other researchers in my area had done, he made me pause and then he pointed at his nametag and my bibliography. He was actually one of the people who wrote one of the articles I cited! How cool is that!? It was fun to talk with him, even though that made me a little nervous since he was an expert in my field. But all in all it was very exciting! All the judges seemed interested in my project, so I hope the awards go well. My friends said their judging went pretty well, too.

The person next to me is from Germany, and his name is Stephen. His project is really advanced. He developed new electrochemical methods to analyze compounds called flavonoids that can protect against cancer and other diseases. He got soooooo many judges, it was insane! All of the judges were attracted to his project like flies are to a lamp. Stephen seems very nice; I had a great time talking with him about Germany and what it is like there. Ilang's mother is from Germany and her dad is from the Philippines, so she speaks German fluently. Her mother and she were talking to all of the Germans!

During the break, Matt McGann (an admissions officer from MIT who goes to lots of competitions to promote the school) set up an ice cream party for MIT people. Technically, since Ilang is going to Wellesley next year, she is also an MIT student (Wellesley students can cross-register), so she also went. The ice cream was really good. Thanks, Matt! I got to meet lots of people going to MIT next year, so that will make the transition easier.

That night we went to a place called Rawhide. Taking the bus to the party was a bit of fiasco because all the students and families were getting on them at the same time. We had to wait more than an hour, but it was worth it! Rawhide is a place that looks like an old western town (think haystacks and fake saloons). The dinner was pretty good there. There was live music, so Ilang tried to teach me how to dance, and I learned some moves. We also tried to rock climb, but that did not fare so well (we couldn't find enough hand holds). They had a spectacular fireworks display there. The fireworks were very pretty (and explosive!) and the show was long. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. I tried to take pictures of the fireworks with my camera but it was hard to time it correctly. I ran into a lot of Intel STS friends and chatted with them for a while. After that, we got bored so we went back on the bus with Scott. The bus ride back was much more fun because Scott was entertaining us with glow sticks.

May 12: Today was public viewing from 10:00–2:00, so we had lots of people come and look at our boards. It wasn't too exciting...but that is okay. I, too, did some "viewing" and some of the projects I looked at were really cool. Unfortunately, not too many students were at their projects because there was a huge line for lunch (it literally took like an hour to get food). I had some people stop by my project, but not many. Mostly I hung out with Scott, Ilang, Bruno, and my friend Joline from Intel STS.

We also had an MIT luncheon and that was cool. I met lots of people going there next year! I got all of their email addresses and AIM screen names. Matt had all of the Class of '09 people stand up and explain why they chose MIT. I talked about how I had never considered going there until my parents practically made me visit. I was so impressed by the enthusiasm of the students I decided to apply. MIT has amazed me because they actively recruit people even though their acceptance rate is one of the lowest! Most of the other colleges I visited did not seem to mind what vibe they were giving off; the admissions officers knew you would apply anyway. After visiting MIT, it went from one of my bottom choices to one of the top ones. I realized that there really weren't many geeks there either (everyone was intelligent but pretty normal). After some more research, I decided that MIT was for me! So, as a lesson, don't judge a book by its cover.

That night my friend from Phoenix and his girlfriend came to look at my project. I showed them around and then rushed off to the Special Awards ceremony.

The ceremony was sponsored by Ricoh, a major new sponsor for the Intel ISEF. In addition to sponsoring this glitzy awards ceremony, they also gave a new Intel ISEF award, the Ricoh Sustainable Development Award. The award consists of scholarships in the amount of $50,000 and a trip to the Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan. Like an appreciative host, Intel felt a need to make sure everyone knew that Ricoh was in charge of the ceremony (and they should feel the urge to recognize them). But, it became a huge joke by the end of the ceremony because they said Ricoh more than 40 times (we counted). All my friends filled a few rows, and we had fun laughing at the jokes the presenters told.

Brian Greene, a famous physicist who has written a few books and has starred in documentaries, spoke. His speech was very good—I actually paid attention! Even funnier was that he started off saying how when he was at ISEF as a high school student all he heard the speaker say was "Blah blah blah" Mr. Greene showed some video clips from a documentary he starred in about "string theory." String theory is the theory that everything is made up of small vibrating stings of energy (even smaller than quarks); if it is true, it could combine everything into one theory to describe the universe.

I was very excited because I won two special awards:

My friends did very well, too. I got to watch a lot of them win awards! Both Scott and Ilang won special awards. Afterwards, Ilang and I stayed up late in our room watching TV and talking.

May 13: On Friday morning, there was the Government Awards Ceremony. I won one award here:
-DuPont's Center for Collaborative Research and Education: Honorable Mention $500. That was pretty cool!

For lunch I met up with some people from New York. They showed us funny videos on their laptops and we just talked about lots of different topics (from politics to trading pins). I have made so many new friends! I love these competitions because I am able to discuss exciting science topics with other people. Most of my friends at school do not realize science can actually be interesting (taking notes, doing homework, and studying for tests are not what science is really about), so Intel ISEF is a great opportunity for this type of discussion! Science is about looking around you and saying "Hey, I know how that works!" It is so much fun to be able to apply the science you learn in the classroom to daily life. You feel really great about yourself when you finally understand a certain concept that you just couldn't comprehend before!

After lunch there was the Grand Awards Ceremony with the category awards you find at any science fair. This is the most exciting part!!!! As with the other ceremonies, all of my friends filled two rows. It is much more fun to sit together because we can cheer for all our friends that win and console those that don't (moral support!).

During the awards ceremony, at first I was very nervous. The way they announce awards is that they present all of the fourth place awards for EACH category, then they go onto third and so forth. After they passed third place for chemistry, I started panicking. I didn't think my interviews had gone THAT well, as some of my judges asked me very tough questions. As they passed second place and I didn't win, I was starting to feel bad. I was afraid that I had not won anything. Even worse, my friends had all won something, and one of my friends from Intel STS in the chemistry category had won 4th and his project was very good. My friends kept telling me that I won 1st, but I didn't think it was possible. Then they went to first place, and Stephen was called (of course, his project was too amazing for him not to win something). They actually give out multiple awards for each place, depending on the size of your category, so for Chemistry, there are two first-place winners and more winners for the lower awards. Then they said "from Carmel, California" and I couldn't believe it!!! I won first! It was so amazing. All of the first-place winners got a standing ovation from the entire audience (at least 5,000 people). Stephen also won one of the top prizes, too (a $50,000 scholarship), and he totally deserved it—he is so smart. Ilang won 4th in Behavioral Science, and Scott won 2nd in Math! Almost all of my Intel STS friends won a Grand Award, too (actually, we all won at least one kind of award). I had so much fun! It was incredible! I am still in shock!

Closing Comments

When I did not qualify for Intel ISEF my junior year, I was extremely disappointed. I was afraid that losing my chance to win at ISEF was like losing a chance to get into the college of my choice. Looking back on it, however, I realize I probably would not have won a Grand Award at Intel ISEF that year, either. My project was good last year, but not great. My loss did not affect me in the slightest in terms of colleges :-). Having the drive to qualify this year forced me to improve my project and really take the competition seriously. In addition, my defeat made me appreciate ISEF more. So in many ways, I am glad I was not able to compete in the 2004 Intel ISEF. Funny how things work out like that...

I went from winning no Grand Awards in 10th grade to winning first place in Chemistry!!!

My Intel ISEF experience in Cleveland was one of the best weeks of my life. I learned how to appreciate science in a new way by meeting such smart students. This year's ISEF was no different. Phoenix had a different feeling to it, but it still makes my list as one of the best weeks ever!

I highly encourage you to go out and compete at science competitions like this. They are a blast! You have no idea what you are missing!

I have always enjoyed science, but my dad, being my parent, was never able to convince me it was not "geeky" to discuss science in public. My friends from the Cleveland and Phoenix ISEFs have introduced me to a different world of engineering, one where it is "cool" to talk about science all of the time. Before I met them, my science interest was just something I could put on my college resume. Now I am officially a "nerd" (I mean that in terms of loving to learn), determined to share my passion for science with others. Don't let ANYONE tell you that science is just for people who wear dorky glasses and study quantum physics all the time. Science allows you to appreciate more about the world. By learning and studying it, you can understand anything from how to program a video game to how wormholes might connect possible alternate universes. How can you say that is not cool?!