Have you heard about how impressive the Regeneron ISEF (previously called Intel ISEF or the Intel Science Fair) is and want to know if it's true? Can it really be a ticket to acceptance at top schools? Yes, the Regeneron ISEF is a highly-competitive science fair that attracts top high school students from around the world. Read this guide to learn how to get into ISEF, what a top project must have, and how you can put yourself in the best position to win this competition.
What Is the Regeneron Science Fair?
Regeneron ISEF is a science fair, but it's not just any science fair. The ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair) is the most prestigious science fair for high school students in the country, and its name is well known among colleges and the scientific community. Just earning a spot in the top 100 competitors is enough to make your college application stand out even to Ivy League schools.
Regeneron ISEF takes place in May of each year. The location changes from year to year, but it's always held in the United States. Millions of students participate in high school science fairs around the world each year, and roughly 1,800 of those participants earn an invitation to compete at the Regeneron Science Fair. The competition lasts roughly a week, and over $5 million is awarded in prizes.
To have a shot at attending ISEF, first you'll need to decide on a science or engineering project and find a mentor (usually a professor or professional who's an expert in the field). Students who do well in ISEF always have a mentor. They help ensure your project is innovative and useful to the scientific community, but still manageable for a high school student. You'll be doing the actual work of the project, but your mentor will ensure you're on the right track. Expect to spend several months on the project (up to 12 months of research is allowed). After the research is complete, you'll then write up your results and give one or more presentations on it. Your project must fit into one of the 21 ISEF categories:
- Animal science
- Behavioral and social sciences
- Biomedical and health sciences
- Biomedical engineering
- Cellular and molecular biology
- Computational biology and bioinformatics
- Earth and environmental sciences
- Embedded systems
- Energy: sustainable materials and design
- Engineering mechanics
- Environmental engineering
- Materials science
- Physics and astronomy
- Plant sciences
- Robotics and intelligent machines
- Systems software
- Translational medical science
However, compared to your school or local science fair, ISEF is much more rigorous. In order to even just get an invitation to the competition, the research you're working on must be interesting and useful to the scientific community. You aren't expected to produce professional-level research, but the expectations are a big step up from what your high school likely requires.
How Can You Compete in a Regeneron Science Fair? Who's Eligible?
You can't simply register for the ISEF. Instead, you need to start out in a local/school science fair. If you do well in that, you can advance to the next round and the next, until you reach an ISEF-affiliated fair. On their website, there's a list of all the ISEF-affiliated science fairs. Once you move on to an ISEF-affiliated science fair (the level this happens at depends on where you live), those fairs will select a predetermined number of projects to send to ISEF. All 50 states and Washington DC have ISEF-affiliated science fairs, as well as 75 countries, regions, and territories. Wherever you live, expect to go through several levels of competition before being able to compete in the ISEF. The research project you did will be the same throughout all the science fairs; you don't develop a new project just for ISEF.
Additionally, you need to make sure you fit ISEF rules for eligibility:
- In grades 9-12 (or the international equivalent)
- Not yet reached age 20
- Project is written in English
- Project doesn't include more than 12 months of continuous research
- If it's a team project, there are no more than three members, and all members must meet eligibility requirements
Roughly 1,800 high school students are invited to participate in Regeneron ISEF. Participants are usually there for slightly less than a week to accommodate set up, presentation, judging, and the award ceremony. If you're chosen to participate in the ISEF science fair, you'll need to select one of the 21 categories for your project to be judged in. At the ISEF science fair, students present their project to judges, who are experts in their field. There are over 1,000 ISEF judges each year, and each has a PhD and/or at least six years of relevant experience. Each project is judged at least four times during the competition.
The winner of the Regeneron ISEF receives a $75,000 award, and the next top two winners each receive $50,000. In total, more than 600 awards are given out each year, with most prizes ranging from $3,000 to $500.
What Makes a Winning ISEF Project?
What does a winning ISEF project look like? Here's an excerpt from a profile of a 2019 winner:
"In this year's competition, Richard Beattie of Dublin, Ireland, was one of the top winners in the category of animal science. Richard and his partner, Dylan Bagnall, also from Ireland, developed a system to aid bat conservation efforts. Though they are often associated with haunted houses and vampires, bats have a key role in the ecosystem, particularly for maintaining balance as the world's lead night-time insect-eaters. In many parts of the world, they are also under threat. With this in mind, Richard and Dylan designed a low-cost bat detector and developed a genetic test to identify specific bat species. They even set up a repository for citizen-scientists to upload bat calls, identify species, access information and more."
What kinds of projects win the very top prize? In 2019, the grand prize ISEF winner was Krithik Ramesh, whose winning project was entitled, "Utilizing Computer Vision and Machine Learning Systems to Develop a Live Time Navigational and Surgical Aid for Spinal Reconstructions." It was in the biomedical engineering category and, essentially, Ramesh created a tool for spinal reconstruction surgery that requires patients to only need one CT or MRI scan, instead of the multiple scans that is the norm. He collaborated with medical experts to design an algorithm that predicts spinal behavior to determine optimal screw placement in damaged spines. Want to know more about the project? Here's the abstract:
"The existing navigational system for spinal reconstructions called fluoroscopy presents significant visual and physiological disadvantages. Fluoroscopy has a limited field of view of the spinal column and emits a significant amount of radiation that affects the patient and the surgical team. Implementation of a machine learning (ML) and computer vision based navigational system eliminates these risks. An augmented reality headset, gives the surgeon the ability to see the real-world and pertinent medical data. These data were parsed through ML algorithms that mapped the spinal column, suggested the best approach, and would guide the surgeon in real-time. The project was tested in two phases: algorithmic and real-world viability. Algorithmically, the performance was measured by training and testing over 2,000 patient’s publicly available CT and MRI scans. The data were used to build and predict spine structures and behavior. The real-world testing was conducted through an augmented reality headset and data was validated post-operatively from 34 observed surgeries. Algorithmic performance measured found that the algorithm created a map of the spine within 88 seconds with 98.6% accuracy. The real-world testing found that the headset was able to map the vertebrae and suggest the correct approach 96.6% of the time within 1.33 mm accuracy of the true values. The data suggest that the developed navigational system would be a pragmatic and economically viable replacement for fluoroscopy. The easily integratable and mobile nature of the diagnostic device makes it viable in both medical centers as well as remote locations (i.e. war zones and developing regions)."
A bit more in-depth than just adding baking soda to vinegar like you did as a kid! As you can see, winning ISEF projects wouldn't seem out of place in academic journals. (Although most projects aren't up to the standards of academic publication.) They represent significant research findings in their field. But what exactly makes a top Regeneron Science Fair project? There are two main components: originality and usefulness.
The research needs to be original in that the research and/or findings of the project are innovative and at least somewhat new to the field. Most high school science fair projects are experiments that have already been conducted, some many, many times. This is because conducting innovative research takes a lot of time and knowledge of the specific scientific field. You need to know what's been done, how it's been done, what data is missing, etc. (This is where your mentor is often very useful.) You can see that in both the above projects, the students had original research findings. The first developed a new kind of detector and genetic test for bats, and the second developed a new algorithm to predict spinal behavior. These things didn't exist before they did their projects. To have any hope of earning an ISEF prize, you need to make sure your research is original.
The other major component is usefulness. Top ISEF prizes always go to projects that are valuable to the scientific community. Again, we see this in both of the above projects: the bat project will help with bat conservation, and the spinal surgery project will improve surgery accuracy and help patients undergo fewer procedures. They both have very obvious value for their fields. Conducting research just for research's sake isn't enough to ace the ISEF, even if the research you do is challenging and well executed. Your project must clearly relate to some bigger issue that it helps improve.
Tips for Competing in the Regeneron Science Fair
How can you set yourself up for the best chance of success at getting an invitation to and excelling at the ISEF Science Fair? Follow these five tips!
#1: Choose a Topic You're Interested In
You're going to be spending a lot of time on this project: reading academic papers, conducting the research, presenting your findings. You'll be expected to be well-versed on the topic and the field in general when you present, so be sure it's something you find interesting. Even if you or your mentor finds a topic that seems great, if it's something you aren't excited about it'll be a slog learning about it, and that lack of passion will likely show when you give your presentations.
#2: Find a Strong Mentor
There is simply no way to be competitive in the ISEF if you don't have a good mentor. You can (and might be!) the smartest person in your school, acing all your classes, etc. but you need an expert who knows the field inside and out so they can help you design a project that is both innovative and useful. A high school student simply doesn't have that expert knowledge yet. While you'll be doing the majority of the actual research, your mentor will serve as a sounding board, helping guide you and answer questions that will inevitably pop up. They are also often useful for explaining different tools that might be helpful, and how to use them. Your mentor might be a professor or industry expert, but, before they agree to mentor you, make sure they understand that this will likely be a months-long commitment from start to finish for them.
#3: Conduct Research That Is Useful and Original
Remember, you need your project to be both valuable and innovative for it to be competitive at ISEF. Those should be your two guiding principles throughout the entire project. If you're doing something challenging but it's already been done before, or if you discover something new but not particularly valuable, see what changes you can make to your project to ensure its originality and usefulness jump out at people. One good way is to briefly have a friend or classmate read your project's abstract. Then, ask them why they think the project is new and important. If they can't easily answer, you know you need to make some changes either to the project itself or how you're describing it.
#4: Be Ready to Put in the Time
For previous school science fairs, you may have put in a bit of time, perhaps a few weekends, but ISEF-qualifying projects are on a whole other level. Expect to spend months (up to 12) working your project. It's possible (though rare) that you have a project you can complete quickly, but most take dozens of hours to complete. Be prepared for that. Additionally, you still have to conduct background research, write up your report, attend multiple science fairs, meet with your mentor, etc. There's a reason ISEF winners are so highly-valued by colleges: schools know how much time and effort it takes to excel at the science fair. If it was easy, then ISEF wouldn't be the most competitive science fair in the country. Before setting it as your goal, make certain you're ready to take on such a large commitment.
#5: Remember That There's More to ISEF Than Winning
Yes, it'd be great to win the grand prize and walk away with $75,000 and tons of prestige. However, don't feel like colleges only care about the winners of the competition. If you conduct high-quality research and develop a strong project, that's still more than what the vast majority of students do in high school, so you're still setting yourself apart, even if you don't win an award. For your college applications, be sure to make it clear how much time you spent on the project (by listing hours of work per week or semester), who you collaborated with, and why the research is valuable and innovative. Conducting original research shows intelligence, a strong work ethic, and an understanding of higher-level academics. These are all qualities colleges want to see in students, which is why research experience is viewed so highly in college admissions, even if you don't receive an award for your work.
Summary: Regeneron ISEF
The Regeneron ISEF (previously called the ISEF Science Fair or Intel ISEF) is the most competitive science fair in the country for high school students. Winners of the competition receive a huge boost to their college applications, but even those who don't take home an award have conducted impressive scientific or engineering research.
Each year, about 1,800 students participate at ISEF where they present their research projects to experts in their field. You'll need to compete in lower-level science fairs to get a ticket to ISEF, and only those whose projects are both innovative and useful to the scientific community generally get chosen. Expect to put in a lot of time and effort if you want to compete, but you'll also have a very strong extracurricular to add to your college application!
Regeneron also sponsors a similar science competitions called the Science Talent Search. Read our guide to learn everything you need to know to compete and excel at Regeneron STS. (coming soon)
Which science classes should you take in high school? Our guide to high school science classes explains which classes you need to take to graduate and impress colleges.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.