Guest post by Langley Grace Wallace, 1st Place Grand Award Winner, 2016 DC STEM Fair-Senior Division
My week at Intel ISEF turned into a revealing and rewarding series of “firsts” for me, as a student, young adult and aspiring scientist. Because of my first-time as the DC STEM Fair grand-prize winner, I was a first-time finalist at ISEF, as well as being the first Sidwell Friends student to compete at either the DC STEM Fair or ISEF. The weeklong competition also marked several other “firsts”: spending long days in “business professional” clothes, facing seemingly impossible questions from extremely knowledgeable judges, making international friends, feeling truly part of something bigger than myself. Overall, these exhilarating first-time experiences, even with my moment of doubt, added up to a nerdy, fun-filled and transformative experience.
From the start, ISEF marked a turning point in my life as a young scientist. Heading into the Opening Ceremony and clad in jeans and DC STEM T-shirt, I struggled to find a seat in the auditorium filled with high schoolers from every state and dozens of countries. I was constantly looking around, in awe and excited by the fellow students surrounding me. The ceremony began with a super geeky but incredibly cool musical performance, followed by an inspirational address by Tan Le, founder of Emotiv Lifesciences, about pursuit of scientific passion in your career. The ceremony then honored students from foreign countries by bringing them on stage through a lively procession. As I watched my competitors jaunt through the aisles and up to the stage, an extreme feeling of happiness and pride overwhelmed me – and others in the giant room. This feeling was another first for me; my budding scientific mind tried to discover the source of this new awareness. I realized for the first time in my life I felt that I was a part of something bigger than myself, that my life was a small but meaningful part of a much larger whole, and that I, and everyone else in the room, were members of the brigade of young scientists looking to change the world. I walked out of the auditorium that night probably looking ridiculous because I couldn’t stop smiling.
The next night was the “finalist mixer,” held before Judging Day. Many of us were now starting to anticipate the upcoming pressure of the competition, tired from setting up and practicing our presentations and suffering jet lag from time-zone changes. Yet, when I entered the finalist mixer with my fellow DC delegates, the stress melted away. Music was blasting, lights were flashing. Everyone was letting loose and dancing like no one was watching. At one point, my DC colleague, with whom I had become close, and I stopped and said to each other, almost simultaneously, “Who knew STEM nerds could have this much fun?!” We were moving in and out of different dance circles, making friends with people from Egypt, Tunisia, and Australia, and having more fun than I could have ever imagined. It was so different from a school dance: all the social pressures were off, and everyone was united in our love for science and our excitement for being at ISEF.
I woke up the following morning with a nervous pit in my stomach. It was Judging Day. I donned my “business professional” outfit and quickly ate a bagel in the hotel lobby for breakfast. At the convention center, I — and 1759 other finalists– flocked to the Exhibit Hall to anxiously await our judges. I made nervous conversation with the people whose booths were near mine, and over the course of that endless yet exhilarating day, these passing conversations developed into valued companionships. At 9 a.m., the first judge to my booth asked me tricky questions to which I didn’t know the answer, and tripped me up multiple times on the wording of some of my assertions. It was a rocky beginning. Thankfully, the next few judging sessions went well, and restored my confidence and pride in my project. After a ten-hour day of explaining, defending, and “selling” our projects to the judges, my booth-mates and I congratulated each other with hugs and raspy-voiced cheers of jobs well done.
On the last night of ISEF, I experienced a brief but important interlude of insecurity at the Special Awards Ceremony. As I sat with my DC friends in the same auditorium where the Opening Ceremony took place, the atmosphere was distinctly different from the first celebratory event. Everyone, myself included, was clearly nervous about the possibility of winning—or not winning— a special award. Once the ceremony began, names of award recipients were called out over the loudspeaker. When my name wasn’t called for the only special award available in the Cellular and Molecular Biology category in which I competed, I quickly and uncharacteristically became despondent. I really started to doubt myself. I questioned my scientific creativity, my intelligence, and my “right” to even be at ISEF among so many talented individuals. Listening to the drone of other finalists’ names being called, I brooded over my discomfort in this newly-purchased suit and the piles of make-up schoolwork waiting for me when I returned to Washington, DC. From the early highs of this trip, I suddenly “deflated” for letting down myself, my parents, my school and the District of Columbia for failing to win an award. My attitude quickly changed, however, when my new friend from Tunisia won a special award. I was so proud to see him wildly happy on stage as he received his award. I realized that it didn’t matter if I won an award or not, because I had already won a multitude of invaluable experiences which would have a longer-lasting impact on my life than any award would have.
Ultimately, my time at Intel ISEF was filled with scientific curiosity, budding friendships, and unforgettable adventures. I will always look back on this week and cherish its amazing experiences. I hope to return to ISEF next year and continue its lessons and fun!
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