The DC STEM Network manages the DC STEM Fair, and sends the top three high school winners to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF). The DC delegation competed against 1,700 students in the 2017 Intel ISEF. This is part one of three student experiences from the top three winners of the Secondary DC STEM Fair 2017. This first guest blog is from Isabel Herberger, who just graduated from School Without Walls this month.

Isabel Herburger

When I first found out I would be attending ISEF, I thought of it as a nice ribbon tying together the package of my experiences as a high school student and an aspiring scientist. I had concluded my lab internship and had a paper detailing my project’s results published. Furthermore, I had finished the college application process and was accepted to Columbia University. My last grades were already pretty much finalized, and I had little homework left.

But the second I stepped into the LA convention center where ISEF was held, I realized just how wrong I was. Hundreds of students from all over the world swarmed past me in the process of setting up their project boards. Many of the boards featured titles I knew little to nothing about. Fair coordinators walked up and down ensuring all the projects followed SRC guidelines. Interpreters met up with students speaking every language imaginable in order to discuss their projects.

The hustle and bustle of the experience didn’t stop there. On the first night, although we were all exhausted from our trips (some delegates had traveled for days to get to LA), we attended a dinner where everyone exchanged pins from our respective states and countries. I have quite the collection in my room now!

The next day was the opening ceremony, and a speaker told us about his various inventions to bring science and medicine to underserved populations, including a $1 paper microscope that could be used to see parasites crawling on people’s skin. Seeing how he used his intellect not just to advance knowledge, but to actually help people in need, was truly inspiring. It also set a precedent for many of the student projects I observed in the days to come, including an Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s test using eye microscopy that costs several thousand dollars less than currently available MRI scans, as well as the first piece of equipment (and an extremely compact and inexpensive one at that) to test whether ticks that bite you carry Lyme disease.

Then came a long day of judging, which, although stressful, was also very empowering—it was filled with questions that were truly insightful and relevant to my project, even though the topic I had worked on (a computer mechanism used to automate primer design for overlapping polymerase reaction) was quite concrete. However, all the stress quickly dissipated that evening, when we attended an exclusive event at Universal Studios. I got to try my first butterbeer and rode my first rollercoaster, all for free!

The next day was public viewing day. We got to tell hundreds of kids about our projects. Afterwards, Sam stayed behind to chat with other young engineers, while Hannah and I went to the Santa Monica Pier for a fun afternoon at the beach. Later that evening, we returned to the convention center for the Special Awards Ceremony, and were proud to watch Sam win two special awards!

The last day was the Grand Awards Ceremony. Although no one from our delegation placed, it was really cool to see kids we’d met in the previous days win various prizes, and we made a fun game of guessing who would win each award. I was also really excited because every participant got a free one-year subscription to Wolfram Alpha! I know that’s going to be the best help in calculus next year.

After the ceremony, we had a wonderful lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant (Katsuya—would highly recommend), and then we packed up our boards for the flight back home. I had intended to sleep, but even at 3 AM, I found myself wide awake. Rather than being the moment that concluded everything, ISEF turned out to be an experience that led countless new doors to open. I’m so excited to see what’s on the other side.

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