image ISEF in review

Recently, I won 2nd place in Systems Software at the ISEF 2021 and 3rd place in Systems Software at ISEF 2022.

Here are the lessons I learned from my time researching on ISEF projects that can be of value to you through your research journey. Let’s begin a story told in three parts:

#1: Research is hard

Everyone thinks any high school research can win you a top award at ISEF.

What they don’t see is the long hours bent over a laptop with fifty Chrome tabs of random datasets, a mountain of stale coffee cups littering the table, and a bunch of thirty-second clips of failed attempts to create a presentation video in your phone’s camera roll.

Research is not a walk in the park. It’s long hours of grinding and unappreciated hard work. Whether it be reviewing prior research, or pitching your idea to hundreds of professors, high school research is no easy feat. Hell, most people would drop dead after reading the abstract of a research paper.

I distinctly remember posting my ISEF project on an online forum for experts to view, and I got heavily criticized for my viewpoints and project. Although I was emotionally damaged by the harsh demeanor of those comments, in retrospect, they helped me learn more about different perspectives, and how to pick out constructive criticism to improve my project.

As a researcher, you have to be prepared to work hard and be willing to sacrifice your own time to get the results you want. You will be rejected, criticized, and ridiculed for your naivety and initial work. By embracing failure—not internalizing it as a lack of experience—you take a step to becoming a better researcher.

The ISEF experience represents the culmination of the work conducted by these students. Every high school researcher’s hopes and dreams are contained in the point sheets of judges. The decisions made by the judges symbolize the culmination of years of research and work that can very well alter the course of the researcher’s post high school goals.

The point? Seek opportunities, work hard, and learn from failure. Nothing is handed to you in life, and success is determined by yourself.

#2: Research is unfair

Many ISEF projects are uncreative. Not that I hate machine learning or a novel method of diagnosing cancer, but when you see those same exact keywords copied and pasted over and over again, it gets exhausting.

"Deep Learning Infant Genome Highly Accurate Lymphomic COVID-19 Gynecologic" (click to generate new name)

Why do we see so many “buzzword-y” research projects come up? It all fundamentally stems from one fundamental fraud: “mentor support.”

Mentor support is intended to be a positive force that improves accessibility in research for high schoolers. But more recently, it’s evolved into a black box system in which connections and networking matter more than merit or passion.

The most egregious offenders are research organizations designed to collect payment from parents who force their unwilling children into these programs for college admissions and resume padding. Once they enter, they are forced into an accelerated curriculum that virtually completes most of the intellectual and inherently difficult aspects of research for them. These fraudulently created projects are then propelled into competitions like ISEF to compete with researchers that don’t have access to the same resources.

This produces a monoculture of similarly boring projects, where fraudulently created projects set the meta by performing well at research fairs, resulting in more experienced students unwittingly committing to the new meta, and newcomers to be drowned out.

So how do you combat this meta?

My ISEF project was aggressively unique for a research project. While most research projects were focusing on highly theoretical subjects in mathematics or tangible results for genetic research, I focused on something that I was passionate about: web programming.

The point? Boring and fraudulent research dominate the meta and inherently make research competitions unfair. Work on projects you’re passionate about to differentiate yourself from the rest.

#3: Research is impactful

Research for the sake of research is fun, there’s no doubt about it. But if there’s three main principles that all successful ISEF projects follow, it’s that they’re breakthroughs in their field, they’re innovative, and they’re able to provide an immediately viable use to society.

It’s often easy to lose sight of the principles that form successful ISEF projects. The best way to follow these principles is to surround yourself with a support group that can help you succeed. Whether that be a friend, an (ethical) mentor, or a group of friends, a support group is integral to keep you motivated and on track to your goals.

Final comments

My rhetoric may be somewhat discouraging or overly pessimistic. Let me clarify: ISEF is an amazing opportunity. Without ISEF, I wouldn’t be able to translate my research into tangible value and make it a reality. I’m inspired by all ISEF projects and it makes me genuinely happy to see so many people participate.

I’d like to personally thank Society for Science for hosting ISEF, my parents and relatives for providing important feedback and guidance, and all the supporters I’ve had on the way.

I hope this article found some value to you. If you’re currently looking to compete in ISEF, I encourage you on your journey to learn more about the research process and impact the future of our society.