Society Alumni Return to Intel ISEF | Society for Science & the Public
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Society Alumni Return to Intel ISEF

May 25, 2011

By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Coordinator, Society for Science & the Public

Several Society Alumni came back to the Intel ISEF 2010 in San Jose, California in mid May to support the students. Rafael Betancourt (ISEF 1982, 1983) (pictured below at the ISEF 1982) has been a judge at many local science fairs but judged at the Intel ISEF for the first time this year. While he says he was always pretty sure he would go into engineering, he was grateful for his ISEF experiences because, without many other engineering opportunities in high school, “participating in the science fair was a way to get closer to [engineering].” It was a preview to what doing more of these kinds of projects would be like as an upperclassman in college and beyond.  

As for how the fair has changed in the last three decades, he remarked on how prevalent lap tops were in the lounges where the students were hanging out. He also remembered doing a scavenger hunt as a student and now his company, Synaptics. Inc. conducts a similar scavenger hunt, with one twist, it is now digital and utilizes touch pad technology. 

Sarah Kupferberg (STS 1980) became a Science Talent Search (another SSP education program) Finalist for her work studying four tree species that lived in high elevation areas, and she is now an ecologist at Berkley. In 2009 she heard that the Intel ISEF was coming to town and applied to become a judge. “I’m just really into this idea of paying it forward.” She notes that she might not be able to pay back her teachers and mentors, but, as they have helped her, she can help the next generation of scientists.

She has one strong memory of her experience being judged herself. The judges asked her “Well what about yew and conifers?” to which she heard “you” instead of “yew” and, confused, answered the question incorrectly. She says it wasn’t until years later when she was learning about yews, a type of tree, that “this light bulb went off and I was like ‘oh, that’s what they were asking me about!’”

Tessa Walters (STS 1990; ISEF 1988, 1989, 1990) is also grateful for these programs for helping fund her undergraduate education at Harvard. This year was also the first time she has judged but she hopes that it will not be the last. “I hope I can be involved for a long time,” she says. She notes the programs offered “the opportunity to speak with other kids [who] share your passion for science,” as well as providing inspiration. She found the judges helped serve as an example of what she, as a Finalist, could do 20, 30, or even 40 years after graduating high school. “I think now, from a judge’s perspective,” she says about the sharing of information, “it’s inspirational for myself as well, just looking at the projects last night and this morning, I’m getting some ideas for things that I can do.”

Amaya Becvar Weddle (ISEF 1992) recently earned her Ph.D. in cognitive science and works at BitDefender as the Usability manager. “If somebody asked me…what [was] the most transformative experience in your life, it would have been winning the science fair because it shifted everything for me,” she says, “I still can’t believe that it happened.” She credits her experience with enabling her to get into the college of her choice and providing the funds necessary to pay for it, as well as inspiring her to pursue a career in science. That is why she came back this year to judge, something she has wanted to do for a long time.  Incidentally, she came with her boss, Vincent Hwang (ISEF 1992), who also judged and was a best of category winner the same year Amaya was at ISEF.

Jerry McAlwee (STS 1986, ISEF 1985) served as a Special Awards judge for the Coast Guard. He sees the SSP Education Programs, by providing freedom to choose your own projects, “allowed you to pursue your imagination.” He adds, “It’s important to not stifle imagination, you never know when a great idea is going to break down the paradigm of all our thought processes.”

In addition to spurring imagination, Jerry says the Intel ISEF creates passion among young students by providing them with a template and a forum for conducting their own research. “I don’t think people recognize how powerful the ISEF process is,” he says, even for kids who don’t become Finalists, they experience the scientific process through constructing their projects. It also forces the students to explain their work, to judges, to the press, and to the public, because, as Jerry notes, “Science is about communicating.  If you can’t communicate, it doesn’t matter what idea you have.”

Arun Thottumkara (STS 2004; ISEF 2001, 2002, 2004) who is now earning his Ph.D. at Stanford in Chemistry came back to the fair this year to support his younger brother. As Arun’s first Intel ISEF was also in the San Jose Convention Center, walking around brought back a lot of memories. “It’s interesting to see it from a little bit of a different perspective,” he says, as he now has several more years of education that can help him more fully appreciate the advanced level of many of the projects. “I’m completely, literally amazed by the depth and the breadth of these projects. To think that 15- and 16-year-olds are doing research that really is remarkably good—it’s the level of a first or second year graduate student — it’s just amazing.”