I have been competing in science fairs since I was in second grade. I can't even remember a time when I wasn't interested in science, so when I heard about the Google Science Fair, which opened last year, I had to see what it was all about. At that point, as a high school junior, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future -- whether or not I wanted to pursue research in college, or even if the research I was capable of would make an impact on the world. The Google Science Fair helped me answer those questions, and more. It was completely different from the science fair formats I was so familiar with, and turned out to be an experience that would change my life, and, hopefully, because of the visibility it gave my research, the lives of others as well.
My science fair project researched drug resistance and ovarian cancer. It was a topic I felt passionate about, and I found that I was able to work on it for hours on end and actually enjoy it. When it came time to submit my project, I was slightly terrified because I'd never made a website before, and the Google Science Fair accepts all submissions and conducts its preliminary judging entirely online via participant websites. Nonetheless, I sat down with Google Sites, put my entire project online (surprisingly, this was easier than I expected), and sent off the link to the Google Science Fair. After I hit "submit," I realized I could build a website, and -- even cooler -- so could anybody else, anywhere in the world. Because submissions were accepted online, anyone in the world could participate, and when I went to the finalist event I found myself meeting kids from all across the globe.
That spring, a roster of superstar judges, like Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, and Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, narrowed the 60 semi-finalists down to the top 15, and I found out I was going to Google headquarters as a finalist. At the end of June, I boarded a plane at Dallas Fort Worth with my mom and we began our flight to Mountain View, California.
Unlike other science fairs I'd participated in, this one provided a chance for interaction among the finalists and with the judges. We participated in group science activities, like releasing weather balloons with cameras attached to them, and we actually got to meet and talk about our projects at length with the world-renowned scientists who served as judges. It was incredibly inspiring to sit down with them, talk about their work and discuss how my own could make an impact. In fact, at the final awards ceremony, I was sitting with Dr. Kary Mullis, the Nobel Laureate who created PCR, talking about how he used to shoot off rockets when he was younger (if you've never heard a childhood rocket story from a Nobel Laureate, I highly recommend it!).
Winning the Grand Prize led to a lot of incredible opportunities, like meeting the President and being named one of Glamour magazine's 21 Amazing Young Women of the Year. But the most exciting thing to come out of the Google Science Fair was what changed about myself. Before, the judges seemed practically superhuman, like nothing a regular kid from Texas could aspire to be. When I met them in person, I realized that they were just really intelligent and really hard-working -- the kind of person everyone has the potential to become. That's the thing about science fairs -- anyone with a good idea and the determination to work at it can win, and those are the people who are out there changing the world.
There are also the emails. I now hear from people all around the country who have suffered from ovarian cancer or know people who have, and they thank me for my work. I think that's the feeling most researchers strive for their entire lives. Having that feeling now has inspired me to continue doing research in college and in my future career. I also hear from students around the world asking me how I did my research, or how they can get to where I am. I feel really proud to be able to be a scientific role model to other young people out there, and I can't wait to see what new role models emerge from this year's fair.
I'm not going to say it's easy. Sending in a science fair submission is a challenge, and you do make sacrifices along the way. But it's worth it. The best advice I can give to all the young, curious minds out there is to find what you love to do, something you can be working on for hours and not feel like it's work. Stick with that and believe that it will pay off in the end.
The 2011 Google Science Fair changed my life. The 2012 Fair might change yours.