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Where to begin? To quote some wise person from a time long, long ago and a place far, far away, “one man’s happiness is another man’s sorrow.” I may have gotten that wrong, but you get the picture. Awards ceremonies are always bittersweet on the individual level—it’s just the way the world works. All 1,842 ISEF Finalists worked very hard on their research for a very long time. The concept of presenting your work to judges and defending its worth inevitably taps into the presenter’s craving for some kind of validation that all of their effort was not for nothing. It’s really easy to get caught up in how an ISEF award would play into your personal ambitions—whether it’s money, fame, getting into a good college, getting off of a college wait list (which is the boat that I’m in right now LOL). It’s easy to feel disappointed. It’s easy to find a reason to be upset at the world.

But that doesn’t feel good. What feels good is getting out of your head, taking in the bigger picture, and embracing others’ success as if your own. To quote Nick, “no one at ISEF is entitled to an award.” Why? Because ISEF is already the best of the best—the best 1,842 out of nearly 7 million students hopefuls who attempted to qualify for the fair in 2019. The fact that I was at ISEF at all was a miracle, as it took me two years and three fairs to qualify. So, with that out of the way, here’s how the day went.

My biological clock was on Eastern Standard Time the entire week, and today was no exception. I woke up at 5am and began packing. Nick and I had actually intended to pack the night before, but we had a long late night Instagram Live session that prevented us from doing so (though that’s a story for another time). After our things were ready, we got on with our regular morning routine—breakfast and then a nice walk to the convention center. I was still groggy with sleepiness when we walked into North Hall to blinding stage lights, Geometry Dash-type electronic music that shook the floor, and the biggest crowd that I’ve ever seen. I mean, there were probably three times as many people in that room as in all of Phoenix.

I heard that there are approximately 22 categories in all of ISEF, and the length of the awards ceremony seemed to show it from the get-go. The categories are divided between two main “parent” categories (pretty sure that’s not how they are really called): life sciences and physical sciences. Each category had fourth-, third-, second-, and first-place winners, but that didn’t mean that there were four total podium places per category. Sophia told me that the top 15% percent in a category get fourth or something like that, which meant that in the larger categories there were more than one first-place finishers (does that make sense?). Thus, there was also a “Best in Category” award, and those winners were eligible for the big Young Scientist and Gordon E. Moore awards.

Secretly, I think all of us were hoping not to get fourth or third as they were announced; second and first have the better prizes. But as the names kept getting called, Sophia, Nick and I remained award-less. Our categories were announced in that order (Sophia’s first, then Nick’s, and then mine), but the grim reality eventually began to dawn on us that we might be flying home empty-handed. Sophia was just about to say something when the first-place winner of the Earth and Environmental Sciences category was announced… Sophia Wang!

We went ballistic. It was amazing to watch the disbelief on Sophia’s face and then the joy and then the rush to the stage. Nick and I were screaming so loud, I lost my voice (again, since I had lost it earlier at the mixer). Sophia won $3,000 and will be getting a near-Earth asteroid named after her by MIT; I joked that thousands of years from now there will be news headlines, “SOPHIA WANG ABOUT TO DESTROY EARTH (although MIT promised that none of the asteroids are on a trajectory to impact our planet). But yeah, it was absolutely awesome and Nick and I just couldn’t stop smiling and yelling and clapping and smiling.

Unfortunately, our names were never announced during the course of the ceremony. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a moment or two of crushing despair. It wasn’t just about money or validation. I’m still on two college wait lists, and a win at ISEF could’ve been that final push that I needed. But once Sophia came back from the stage with her blue ribbon and broad smile, Nick and I forgot all about our disappointment. It was a great day and a great week. ISEF had come to a close with a beautiful awards ceremony, and Sophia had won first-place. We would have to have been stupid to not be happy.

After the ceremony, we went to project tear-down and disassembled our exhibits. Lots of good-byes were exchanged along with hugs and handshakes. I exchanged Instagram handles with some of my neighboring finalists. We had become so close over the course of the week, and now we’d never see each other again—crazy. Then we went back to the hotel, dropped our stuff, went to Jimmy John’s for lunch per Nick’s suggestion (they have amazing 16-inch Italian sandwiches), and just chilled at the hotel before taking a Lyft to the airport and flying home.

It took two years and three science fairs for me to get to ISEF, and it was well-worth the wait and effort. Every minute of this week has been unforgettable. There were times over the years that I would sit at my computer at home late at night, reading these CTSTEM blogs about ISEF and remembering why I work so hard on my project. Now, I’m the one writing the blogs, and I can’t be happier.

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