Stories from Science Fairs

The Biophysical Society has been sponsoring awards for high school students with outstanding biophysics-related science fair projects since 2009, with Society members serving as volunteer judges. Last year saw the highest number of volunteers yet. A couple of Society members share their experience as volunteer judges looking for the best biophysics project.

I’ve long been judging for the San Diego Science and Engineering Fair. A similar fair long ago and far away gave me my start in science, and science fairs have performed the same service for both of my children. In short, I have long been a believer. Thus when the opportunity to hand out a Biophysical Society-sponsored Biophysics Award appeared in the BPS Newsletter, I jumped at it. I recruited Terry Frey, a longtime BPS member, to help me, and we had a fun time choosing the winner and discussing the projects. Looking eagerly forward to this year’s fair.
Peter Salamon, Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, San Diego State University

For the last 4 years, I have been volunteering at State Science& Technology Fair of Iowa for the high school projects. The fair takes place in Ames, IA, the home of Iowa State University. US. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy have a significant presence in Ames, and research facilities of many large agricultural companies are at close proximity. So the volunteer judges are composed largely of academicians and scientists, which make a very fun crowd to spend a Saturday with.
But judges aside, amazing are these high school students, who have passionately devoted their free time to their projects and willing to go through a critical examination of their work by a bunch of big ego PhDs. Some students enjoy doing science to such an extent that they expand their projects every year and present their new findings. You get to know them quite a bit; you witness the change in them, the way they work, the way they present.
Not every project is high-caliber. Some students wanted to do a science project, had fun with it, but they didn’t go deeper in their thinking. But you can see the driven students right away: they sought mentorship from research groups at universities and accomplish feats not possible at their shabby high school science lab.
The most difficult thing is to choose the winner projects; because you don’t want to dash their hopes, you don’t want to send the message that they are not good enough. You want to tell them that doing science is hard work, but joyful. It is not always fun, especially when your work is being criticized and judged, but discovering something new is always satisfactory. You want to tell this to all of them, but you can’t. You just hope that they are sorely infected by this science bug, and they will keep coming back for more.
Taner Sen, Computational Biologist, USDA-ARS, MaizeGBD and Assistant Professor, Dept. Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology, Iowa State University

When Judging Day arrived on March 29, 2011, a part of me regretted the diversion—I was abandoning many other unfinished lab tasks. President Obama was in town, so when I entered the Museum of Natural History to confront a metal detector, I knew that the rumors he would drop in on the final round of the NYC Science and Engineering Fair must be true.
I made my way to the judge orientation session in the Whale Room, only to find my search for the Biochemistry table blocked by a cheery-but-firm advance woman. We divvied up the projects to be judged, pulling biophysics entries from both Biochemistry and Chemistry categories (oh, interdisciplinarity!). At 2:30 or so, as I peppered students with questions and probed their roles in some impossibly sophisticated projects from top NYC labs, we were, all of a sudden, barred from leaving the poster area, asked to place all sharp pencils on the floor, and alerted to await the arrival of the President. Forty-five minutes later, he arrived, to oohs and ahhs and cell-phone flashes. The President assured the kids that he was going to nod appreciatively when they explained their work, but that he really did not understand it. He inspired the group and was inspired equally by these fledgling scientists. Later we anticlimactically completed our judging, sending 18 or so lucky entrants to the International Science and Engineering Fair and making one young biophysicist very proud and happy.
Ruth Stark, Professor of Chemistry, The City College of New York (CCNY)

I have rarely missed volunteering as a judge for my local science fair over the last several years. Keeping in touch with young scientists allows me to gauge the field of biophysics through the enthusiasm of the talented students. Most recently I served as the Biophysical Society judge at my local science fair. Having the Biophysical Society represented at your local science fair allows students that might never otherwise have heard of biophysics get introduced to the field; and potentially targets these bright minds to apply themselves to biophysics. Besides all that, it is just fun.
Jenny Cappuccio, Project Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Have you judged at a science fair? Share your experience or leave a comment here. Looking for the opportunity to judge? Find out where the Society is sponsoring Biophysics Awards in 2012.

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