What happens when almost 1800 passionate young scientists from around the world get together? We make the future.
I didn’t feel the truth of one of the Intel ISEF slogans, “Tomorrow begins today” until I was sitting down for the Opening Ceremony in a room full of some of the most intelligent and innovative people I will ever meet. Although we were all competing against each other (for $5 m in awards) there was a level of camaraderie because we all knew how hard it was to become a finalist there. United through this challenge we’d overcome and our passion for science and making the world a better place, we went through the week learning, making friends, and sharing our research and findings with each other.
I’ve been to almost 30 countries but I’ve never been with people from so many places all at once. On Public Viewing Day when students from what seemed like all the schools in LA came to learn about our projects, the international kids got dressed up in their traditional formal attire. There were girls in kimonos and hanbok and boys in kilts and lederhosen. Everyone was so eager to connect- my (county) teammates Natalie and Connor and I were given a bags of pins representing our county to trade with others, collecting pins from places like South Korea, Saudi, Texas, Oregon, and Moldova.
Of course, there was still a feeling of competition, with some teams such as Brazil sporting complete outfits in their country’s colors, or Canada starting cheers and enthusiastically waving their flag. Everyone wanted to place or win a special award to represent their country and make their friends and family proud, and to get recognition for their hard work. Some days were tough, especially Wednesday with 8 hours straight of talking to judges, but the week was not without fun and celebration.
Half an hour after judging ended, we all got to go to Universal Studios. It was closed for 5 hours just for us, and everything was free. There was food and ice cream, and containers of popcorn that you could just grab if you wanted. We felt like VIPs! It was unlike any other theme park experience because usually they’re full of compromise- long lines, expensive food. This time it had none of that!
The official ISEF week ended with the Grand Awards Ceremony. I had talked to 12 or so Grand Awards judges in my category, which is a lot, and I was hoping to maybe place 4th in my category. The night before, at the Special Awards Ceremony, I had been completely caught off guard with a big special award from China, so I knew surprises were possible, but when all the 4ths and all the 3rds were announced and I wasn’t one of them, I was disappointed. But just as the realization started to set in, the Environmental Management 2nd place was being announced. They called my name! I wanted to run down the aisle and up the big ramp to the stage like I had won the whole fair, but I contained my excitement. I felt so honored to be recognized among such incredible young leaders and scientists.
I remember what motivated me to start connecting my orangutan work with science when I was 12. I had listened to an audiobook about scientists and inventors like Einstein and Bell, and when it came time to decide on a topic for science fair, I was overwhelmed with the urge to discover something, to do “real science,” to make a difference. I’m so grateful for everyone who has supported me in the past three years so I could get to where I am now. Without the support of my mentor David, my family, my county, and everyone else who was involved in my project along the way, I am certain that my work could not be what it is now.
Intel ISEF was so much fun and an incredible experience. My generation is the turning point for our planet and we’re going to change the world like none ever has. In the past two weeks I’ve gone backpacking with kids who care about the outdoors like it’s their home, and I spent a week with some of the young scientists who are going to cure cancer and provide the world with safe drinking water. I believe in my generation, and I’d say the future is bright.