This time, Scholar Of Tomorrow interviewed the gold medal winners of Regeneron ISEF from the current and previous years. They are Keyu Wan and Yanbing Jin, who are both students from Pinghe School in Shanghai.
In this interview, they shared their interpretation and enthusiasm for scientific research, previous research experiences, and what they gained from participating in ISEF.
From reading carefully through the following interview, students interested in scientific research and their parents can gain a deeper understanding of scientific research and some useful suggestions in preparing for ISEF.
The interview was divided into two articles:
While this article shares Keyu Wan’s journey in scientific research, we will explore Yanbing Jin’s story in our next article.
Now, let’s walk into the world of scientific engineering together with Yanbing Jin~
Why did you choose to do scientific research?
When did you make up your mind?
I decided to do research in the second half of eighth grade. After being accepted to the school's ninth grade, I began to think about my future direction. In fact, there wasn't a specific and decisive opportunity. The accumulation of various ideas made me decide to do scientific research.
I summarized everything into roughly three main factors:
First, I really hope my future career can directly apply what I have learned in college. (Of course, it would be even better if I could use the knowledge from high school.) This is a fantastic thing, probably because I love subjects and knowledge, especially STEM subjects, and scientific research meets this requirement precisely.
Secondly, I prefer the working atmosphere of doing scientific research. I feel that scientific research is about doing your own thing and speaking on your own merits. In the field, there may not be as much social networking involved, and there will be fewer obstacles to work due to complicated social relations. For example, politics and relationships are much more complicated in many corporations. In contrast, the field of scientific research is better.
Finally, the meaning of scientific research. I have quite an ivory-tower idea: to change the world. Since I like science, I want to help the world through science. In fact, I have talked with some other students engaged in scientific research. They all have the same original motivation or goal of scientific research; that is, they hope to contribute to society. (It seems like many people had this idea when they were kids, and I don't know if I'm naive to still have it.) But I really wanted to do something.
What is the major direction of your research?
Why did you choose to go in this direction?
For now, my choice of major is biology. It is still because I wanted to explore the field of biology in eighth grade, but the future is relatively unknown to me. I am also not sure which subfield I will study in the future. I prefer to continue exploring the specific direction in the future four years of college.
As for the reasons why I became interested in biology in eighth grade, there are roughly three.
First of all, the topics I was curious about then, and some problems I wanted to solve in the future, were typically within the scope of biology or would be solved by biology. In contrast to math and physics, biology is more related to many practical problems, such as biomedicine, which involves research on topics closely related to our daily lives. I thought: It would be nice if I could actually see the difference my work makes in the world.
The second is a rather childish idea. At that time, I did pretty well in math and physics at school, so I didn’t feel challenged. However, biology is different. For example, in the biology workbooks we did in middle school, there were many flexible and relatively open-ended questions for which we had to apply the knowledge from books instead of simply looking for answers. I thought that was quite challenging and thought challenging things were more interesting.
Finally, my biology teacher and the grades all played a role. My biology grades were very good, maybe ten-ish points higher than other students, so I received strong positive feedback. At the same time, I met a very good biology teacher in middle school, whose personality was full of charm. This also made me more interested in this subject.
Have you encountered any challenges in your research?
How did you solve it?
All I can say is that everything was difficult. Especially when you go into the lab, there are difficulties everywhere. For example, the most simple: at the very beginning, when I first came into a lab, I didn’t know anything and needed the teacher to teach me by hand. The greatest difficulty in my research was that the topic I chose and the experimental method I used involved a purely random process such as mutation, so there would be a situation in which it would be impossible to achieve the ideal result no matter how I repeated the experiment, and there was no way to intervene. So I got very anxious.
Did you come across anything interesting during your research?
Or a story that sticks in your mind?
There was a very interesting story related to ISEF itself. At that time, I was preparing for the presentation when Nature published an article. This article is another way to solve a problem similar to my project. The most interesting thing was the timing. From the perspective of scientific research, I really appreciate this article's research methods and ideas, and I want to learn more about them in the future. However, it was published just before presentation, as if my work was not that significant. Therefore, I was afraid that the judges would ask me after reading this article: How was your research better compared with this paper? So I was very conflicted. On the contrary, I would not have such a struggle if there was no such competition.
Since you just happened to mention ISEF, could you give us a brief introduction?
Regarding its competitive nature, it’s a screening process. All the participants have to do is submit various materials, then present, and finally, answer the questions raised by the judges.
However, ISEF itself is an international science and engineering fair, which means it has a lot of conferences, and it indeed includes many exciting activities. For example, it may invite participants who competed in ISEF 20 or 30 years ago, professionals in the fields, and Nobel Prize winners to share their insights. During that time, I stayed up late watching these sessions. Although the contents were all repetitively about motivating teens interested in science, they were still pretty fascinating when told in their unique way.
Also, it provides an opportunity for high school students from all over the world to communicate.
It is really about having global high school students passionate about scientific research gather at ISEF. There is an online exhibition where participants can see other students’ presentations, which I found very interesting and enlightening. What’s even more amazing is that all the work was done by teens about my age, so I admire them.
Why did you participate in ISEF?
Amazingly, I didn't know about ISEF at first. In my first year of high school, there was an opportunity to sign up for the Yincaijihua（A science training program for high school students）. Students who wanted to dig deeper into academic fields were recommended, so I applied and was accepted into the program. There was a lecture given at the beginning of the program, and it introduced me to ISEF: after several rounds of screening, students who do well in their projects can participate in ISEF on behalf of the national team. Back then, I felt it was challenging and didn't hold much hope. I just continued to do scientific research, take advantage of various opportunities, and learn as I had done at the beginning. In the program, I read articles, did research, wrote papers, and made presentations. After a few rounds of presentation, I eventually made it to the national team, officially entering the world of ISEF.
I later learned that the Yincaijihua is just one of the many ways to get into ISEF. If you want to participate in ISEF, you can learn more about it.
How did you prepare for ISEF?
In fact, the national team has a pretty scientific system, and I followed that plan. In the beginning, there were large-scale workshops and then meetings about things to keep in mind during the competition. The Shanghai team also invited professors from Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University to help us practice the presentation. Anyway, it's good just to follow the national team.
My research project was about increasing the activity of an existing plastic degrading enzyme. This research could make biodegrading plastics even more efficient. However, my research was more of an early stage of the process: after the enzyme itself has been improved, a series of subsequent experiments are needed before this highly efficient enzyme can be put into practical use.
Did you encounter any difficulties during the competition?
How did you solve it?
Since this year was an online competition, the main problem I encountered was the network. The judges sometimes also had network connection issues. For example, there was a judge who couldn’t even join the online platform. I couldn’t hear his voice or see his video, which wasn’t solved at last. Of the original twelve judges, only nine or ten showed up.
Do you have anything else you would like to share about ISEF? Tips?
Take your experiment seriously.
First of all, the process of doing experiments is a good opportunity to learn. Even if you can't make it to the national team later, it will be an excellent opportunity to learn about professional knowledge. Secondly, doing experiments enables students to determine whether they are genuinely interested in the subject. If you take it seriously, it can help you eliminate a possible option or reinforce interest in the subject, and it is a way for students to try their hand at a major.
Therefore, you will gain a lot from participating in the competition in terms of personal growth as well as insight into the subject.
Finally, what would you like to say to other students interested in scientific research?
Just go for it.
Be sure to try it out for yourself and experience the process of doing experiments.
It is really difficult to experience the real feeling of doing actual scientific research through other means. If you are really interested in scientific research or considering making it your future career, this special feeling will be involved in your life, the working environment, and the specific work you have to do in the future. You will have completely different experiences, even in different branches of the same subject. For example, different branches of biology use different research methods, which makes you do completely different things every day in the same scientific research project.
This specific feeling is hard to experience in forums, books, or other media. Trying it out early can help you determine if you're right for it and if you really love it.
This is the end of our interview with Yanbing Jin. We want to thank Yanbing Jin for her valuable insights, ideas, and suggestions to students interested in scientific research.
If any students or parents still have questions about anything covered in this interview, please feel free to leave a message on the Scholar of Tomorrow official account. We would love to answer all of your questions.