I Lived For a Yearly Ritual That Told Me How Smart I Was. Then I Saw the Light.

The year was 2023, and I was at my version of the Super Bowl: the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. ISEF’s championship match plays out every spring in a different city; this time, I found myself right in the heart of Dallas. As I walked through the rows of projects, I spotted someone who had discovered the smallest ultrashort-period planet in history, another who had invented a microneedle patch to help diabetes patients manage their symptoms, and one more who had designed bulletproof walls to shield students during school shootings. I didn’t bat an eye. It would have taken another moon landing to surprise me.

I arrived at my project. Usually, I’d run through a ritual to ease my nerves: perform my speech a couple times, practice fielding some curveball questions, and slyly scope out the competition around me. But in my sixth and final year of competition, I decided to prepare by thumbing through TikTok and chowing down on some french fries. I didn’t care about competing anymore. The night before, I had arrived at a startling conclusion: This isn’t what I signed up for.

It had taken me the better part of a decade to see the light, because in my hometown of Conroe, Texas—where magnet school–attending overachievers owned the streets—ISEF was the stuff of legends. As the world’s largest high school science competition, it offers more than frilly ribbons and shiny medals to its winners. ISEF opens the doors to $9 million in scholarships and matriculation at some of the country’s most selective schools. Every kid I knew dreamed of sprinting to the big stage in a sea of confetti and holding up a $50,000 Gordon E. Moore Award in pure triumph. There was little a high school researcher wouldn’t do for an ISEF nod of approval—spend hundreds of hours poring over test tubes or human subject forms; skip parties, classes, and proms to polish their presentations; or have dramatic fallings-out with friends whose projects threatened their prize prospects. What didn’t help was the prevailing perception in the ether: Science fairs are supposed to be America’s magic genius detectors. Their job? To handpick the best and brightest. Science fairs are shouting, “Want to feel validated? Win, and you’re a certified brainiac. Also, money!” An insecure teenager can’t help but play along.

When I look back, evidence of the science fair’s more dubious aspects was practically knocking down my trifold. There was a phrase that got thrown around every year at the fair, one that I used to repeat like a mantra: “Science doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor.” To many competitors, it was a reminder that this, unlike most extracurriculars, was supposed to be a genuine and unbridled meritocracy. Regardless of where you came from, if you knew your science and could defend it before a judge, you’d make it to the big leagues.

But it’s pretty clear that’s not the case. Before you even walk in to set up your board, the cards are already stacked for or against you. If your mom works at the local university and lets you piggyback off her Alzheimer’s research, you have a leg up. If you can spend thousands of dollars to get professional interview coaching, you have a leg up. If your school has state-of-the-art clean rooms, 3D printers, or virtual-reality headsets, you have a leg up.

It doesn’t end there. Once you get to the fair, it’s a game of winning over the people in front of you. Try as they might to reward the science and only the science, judges are human.
When it’s construction paper and cardboard trifolds up against $400 glossy panels, or the student in the ratty T-shirt against his neighbor in the tailored suit, glitz and glam often win out. In my high school, allowances weren’t saved for concert tickets, but for deluxe bright printing paper at FedEx. There’s a whole art to subtly making judges like your project more. Work with trendy topics like “A.I.,” “sustainability,” and “smart materials”; that’ll earn effortless brownie points. Slap the word “novel” onto your project; statistically, you’re 20 to 70 percent more likely to win. Memorize a couple of jokes; maybe the judge will remember how hard they laughed instead of how hard your methodology sucked. And when you don’t know the answer to a question, duck. Make your answer sound good, even if it’s not sound science.

I tried to avoid the tricks of the trade, but I have to admit—I couldn’t help but play a little bit of the game. When I stuck to the hard science, I didn’t place at my school fair. When I added flashy animated demonstrations, I racked up gold medals on the world stage. It felt like a betrayal, like this was more a Shark Tank episode than a research symposium.

There’s no way out of making these sorts of compromises when it’s the very nature of the competition. In the project I put together my freshman year to qualify for ISEF for the first time, I used A.I. to take the trial and error out of diagnosing psychiatric patients, making what takes decades happen in just days. One M.D. judge frowned and asked me, “How will doctors continue to make a living if patients go home quickly?” Another asked, “Isn’t this whole thing a bit dark for a science fair project?” I had a choice: either be honest and risk wounding the ego of someone who had my future in their hands, or pivot in hopes of a better outcome. None of that mental calculus had anything to do with science.

After that, my view of the fair was a little wounded, but I still held fast to my faith in its promise. My logic went something like this: Sure, the fair pays a bit too much heed to cosmetic factors, but who’s to say that’s totally misguided? Science needs to be communicated well, after all, and sometimes, that involves using some poetic license while talking about it. As long as the science itself was good, a classy paint job couldn’t hurt.

I was making a rookie mistake here, one I only fully understand now: believing that the science itself was intact. Because it’s not just the presentation that gets twisted in the science fair; the way we approach the scientific method does as well. The most salient feature of a science fair isn’t what projects are in the room; it’s which projects aren’t. The Biomedical and Health Sciences category every year has dozens of projects claiming to advance some cancer therapy, but you usually won’t find a single one saying, “We tried X therapy, and it doesn’t actually seem too good at curing cancer.” Most of the time, in the real world, science isn’t headline-worthy. Most of the time, researchers get null results. But in a science fair, they don’t have a good ring to them. They can’t compete against someone who found something that worked. So competitors pivot studies, change hypotheses, and “hack” their statistics to make it seem like there’s something big where there’s nothing. As recent revelations of the replication crisis in psychology have suggested, this isn’t just a problem among young people aiming at science fair prizes, but in corners of academia as well. The lingo might be different—it’s grant review committees instead of judges and peer-reviewed publications instead of projects—but the culture is the same: breakthrough or bust.

As I qualified my freshman, junior, and senior years, the signs that the science fair wasn’t what I thought it was became harder to ignore. It mattered less and less what I said as long as the judges kept nodding and the prizes kept coming. I wasn’t thoughtful about my journal entries; I was efficient about them. I didn’t want to learn the science for its own sake; I wanted to position it to give me the best chance at standing proud on the ISEF stage. I had lost what I came to the science fair for in the first place: to be curious. To tinker. To learn. I suddenly found the younger version of me, the Siddhu who looked at ants under a comically large microscope and watched Khan Academy videos for fun, buried under a pile of certificates, ribbons, and trophies.

Deciding whether to register for my local science fair in my senior year, I had to think to myself: Is there anything that keeps me coming back other than the competition? I made a mental list. I liked the scholarships, which put a big dent in how much I had to pay for college. The confidence, conviction, and clarity my participation gave me were helpful, too. Thinking more, I realized that half of the contacts in my phone were people I had met from the fair—the Ghanaian teacher who loves to sing almost as much as she loves nanotechnology, the girl who dreams of being the first Asian American Supreme Court justice, and the boy from rural Idaho who had never crossed state lines until competing—whom I would’ve never met otherwise.

The biggest flaw of science fairs was staring me right in the face—it obscured the people behind them. It’s so laser-focused on valorizing the feats of individual men and women that it forgets the teamwork behind most of science’s greatest work. Science fair culture makes us feel like chatting with our competitors instead of sharpening our competitive edge is doing science wrong, when really, that’s what it’s all about. And it made it worth going again.

So I made it my singular mission that in my last year, I’d put the people first. And that was the premise for my unofficial final science fair project: to see how science fair participants felt about what they were doing. Most shared my feelings. People hated that when they saw a great project across from them, they couldn’t just appreciate it for what it was. They had to take stock of it and figure out how to beat it. People hated having to cold-email hundreds of professors to get into a lab and mooch off their state-of-the-art research. Then, I asked them—some of the best innovators I knew—to innovate a little more. How would they change science fairs? And it seems, surprisingly, that abandoning the competition altogether would do the trick. Ideally, noncompetitive science fairs would offer what competitive science fairs do right, like networking opportunities, without forgetting their purpose: making science real for young people. Without all the pressure, participants in noncompetitive fairs could focus on what they care about rather than what they think judges will care about. As many as 91 percent of people with science fair experience agree that requiring student participation in noncompetitive fairs would help more kids fall in love with science.

Nobody can predict what kind of research the next science fair will generate, but what we do know is that until we relieve some of the pressure, we’ll keep having kids, year after year, who are convinced that in order to win, they have to place style over science, delivery over data, and optics over objectivity. As for me, I’ll hold onto my medals and trophies, but none of the memories that dull their shine.