Polygence blog / How to Conduct and Showcase Research

Winning Tips for Regeneron ISEF

5 minute read

If there were an Olympics for STEM projects, it would be the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The event’s opening ceremony alone—a stadium full of 1,800 screaming students from 75 countries—tells you this is no ordinary science fair.

ISEF Basics and How to Compete

Started in 1958, ISEF is the world's oldest and most prestigious pre-college science fair. There are no little blue ribbons here. Now sponsored by the biotech company Regeneron, ISEF’s top Innovator Award is $75,000. Finalists in 21 ISEF categories can win $3,000 (1st place), $1,500 (2nd place), $1,000 (3rd place), and $500 (4th place) prizes. Other awards include scholarships, internships, field trips, and lab equipment.

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You must be in high school and win at affiliated science fairs to compete at ISEF. These qualifying fairs occur from January to March in the U.S. and involve a few rounds (e.g., local, regional, state). ISEF takes place each May and lasts for a week. The 2023 ISEF was held in Dallas, TX and the 2024 ISEF will be in Los Angeles, CA (May 11th-17th). Prior ISEF events have been hosted by other U.S. cities - during the pandemic, the event took place virtually. 

You can learn a lot more about ISEF by watching the funny and moving documentary Science Fair and the award-winning film Inventing Tomorrow.

ISEF judges use a 100-point scale to grade each project; criteria consists of:

  • Originality and creativity (30 pts)

  • Fidelity to the process (30 pts)

    • The scientific method for experiments 

    • The engineering goal for products

  • Thorough research and goal completion (15 pts)

  • Skills used to complete the project (15 pts)

  • Clarity and evidence of proper understanding of the topic (10 pts)

Grading works slightly differently if you work on a team project (up to 3 students can make up an ISEF team). For team projects, judges also take teamwork into account. You can review the ISEF judging guidelines for specific questions the judges consider while looking at your project. 

Projects addressing significant real-world problems are the ones that stand out. These are some subjects and challenges that inspired recent ISEF winners:

  • Electric cars: Can we create more sustainable electric vehicles that don’t require magnets made from rare-earth materials? (Robert Sansone)

  • Sports and medicine: Can we improve coaching and physical therapy remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic? (Michelle Hua

  • Energy: What’s a cost-effective way to extract hydrogen from water and store it for clean energy production? (Abdullah Al-Ghamdi)

  • Immunology: Could we produce COVID-19 vaccines faster and cheaper? (Rishab Jain)

How to Win ISEF

Many ISEF finalists share their key tips and strategies for success in videos, podcasts, and blogs. We’ve compiled some of their best advice to help you create a winning science fair project.

ISEF Winning Tip 1: Find a mentor. 

ISEF winner Amber Hess thinks finding a good mentor is the most important thing you can do to be successful at a top science competition. A mentor can help you find an original and compelling project topic and unpack complex concepts. They can also introduce you to new research, help you troubleshoot experiments, teach you better organization and presentation skills, work with you on priorities and time management, and encourage you when times get tough. Not sure where to find one? You can filter our Polygence mentor profiles based on your areas of interest. All of our research program mentors have exceptional academic backgrounds and teaching experience.

ISEF Winning Tip 2: Identify a passion project people can use.

Your enthusiasm for a topic helps you stick with the project. It also helps when it’s time to give your presentation. Judges (all people, really) prefer to listen to presenters who are excited about their research. If you can solve global warming, go for it, but the main thing is to pay attention to what you care about and see how you can apply that to the real world. ISEF winner Krithik Ramesh loves video games, and out of that love came a revolutionary surgical idea. Take a look at the 21 ISEF categories to start brainstorming a possible subject for you to take on. 

ISEF Winning Tip 3: Be original. 

Your mentor can help you weed out what’s been done before, but make sure the idea comes from you. Keep at it, even if it’s an idea nobody else has tackled before. Your mentor can help you make a big idea more manageable.

ISEF Winning Tip 4: Learn from science pros.

Be thorough in your research. Take the time to read articles in scientific journals related to what you’re researching or designing. Interview experts in the field - again, this is where a mentor comes in handy. Read forums. Look at how the pros present their findings—their calculations, their graphs and charts, their formatting—and how they structure their experiments. See what’s out there. You want to be original, but to be original, you’ll need to know what’s already out there.

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ISEF Winning Tip 5: Commit the time.

You’re allowed to spend up to a year working on your project. Most ISEF winners work on their projects during the summer, fall, and winter before the competition, devoting between 400-1,600 hours. You need to allow for enough time for things to go wrong. And when (not if) they do go wrong, work through it. This leads us to…

ISEF Winning Tip 6: Recognize you’ll make mistakes and don’t be afraid of them.

Sometimes, making mistakes along the way can turn into incredible research results. ISEF winners share their firsthand experiences with the ISEF competition and how mistakes and failures can be beneficial in these videos:

ISEF Winning Tip 7: Use statistics wisely in your analysis.

Showing detailed error analysis elevates your project. Show how your predictions and results correlate and explain why there may be outliers. Detailed analysis shows that you are thinking like a professional.

ISEF Winning Tip 8: Give a clear and concise presentation.

If you can talk and write about your project in a way that anybody can understand its importance, you’ve done your job. Visuals (e.g., drawings, photos, prototypes, and 3D models) can also help you break down complicated concepts into digestible chunks

ISEF Judge Travis Frey suggests practicing your presentation in front of people who are not scientists - he used to practice in front of his parents. He also offers that you should do as many science competitions as you can to prepare for questions from judges. ISEF finalist Ellen Xu came up with 3 explanations to fit how much time a judge would have with her: a quick 1-minute rundown, a 3-minute version, and a 10-minute full description. Rishab Jain advises against memorizing your presentation so that you can adapt quickly to whatever your judge is interested in. But it probably doesn’t hurt to have a quick way of introducing your project.

ISEF Winning Tip 9: Make sure your project qualifies! 

It would be terrible to do all that work and then discover that you can’t compete because of a simple technicality. ISEF provides a Rules Wizard to help you navigate all the paperwork you might need BEFORE you start. You should also read International Rules for Pre-College Science Research. For example, one rule is that your project boards and abstracts must be written in English. Finally, this Reasons for Failing to Qualify for ISEF list helps ensure you’re good to go and that you didn’t violate any of the safety protocols.

ISEF Rewards

Obviously, not everyone who competes at Regeneron ISEF can end up winning one of the official competition prizes. However, the thrill of competing and the sense of accomplishment you feel from participating in the event will be rewarding as well. Be sure to take the time to acknowledge your amazing work.

Speaking of time, here’s some important information to know about the competition schedule:

ISEF Timeline

The exact dates vary year to year, but will follow this general schedule:

  • June-December (the year prior to the ISEF you’re participating in)

    • The more time you can devote to your project, the better.

    • A lot of ISEF winners spent a summer working on their projects.

    • The Polygence research program for high school students is a great way to structure 10 weeks of work with built-in milestones to ensure you make steady progress.

  • January-March

    • Most local science fairs are held at this time. 

    • You must be a finalist in an affiliated science fair to be eligible for ISEF.

    • There are generally about 3 rounds of competition (local, regional, and state) before you can progress to ISEF. 

  • 12 days after your final affiliated fair

    • Finalist questionnaire is due.

  • Mid April

    • Abstract rewrite is due.

  • Late April

    • Presentation materials are due on ProjectBoard.

  • Early May

    • Phone/video interviews must be completed.

    • Safety inspections are due.

  • Mid May

    • Regeneron ISEF (the 2024 event is in Los Angeles, CA from May 11th to 17th)

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