In 2006, Shannon Babb won both first prize at the Intel Science Talent Search (STS) and the prestigious Seaborg Award at Intel Intel ISEF for her work tracking water quality around her home in Utah. The Seaborg Award allowed her to travel to the 2006 Nobel Prizes in Stockholm, Sweden. Shannon is currently a freshman in Watershed Sciences at Utah State University.
We spoke with her last week about her Intel ISEF experiences.
Q: What are you currently working on at Utah State?
A: I'm researching paleoclimate indicators and paleocurrents in the Neoproterozoic Era, so I'm working with about 1-billion-year-old rocks, trying to determine what was happening on Earth at that time.
Q: Is that a natural progression from your prior work? How did your experiences with Intel ISEF and STS guide you to where you are now in your current research and science goals?
A: Basically, my past research is the only reason I got on the research team here. The goal of this project is to bring in expertise from many different disciplines to try to look at this data set from new angles. So we have a statistician, we have a geologist, I'm taking it from the water and climate side, and we're going to be bringing in a chemist, and a microbiologist.
Q: What is your fondest memory of Intel ISEF?
A: Well, probably the coolest experience was when I paid a little bit extra to go on one of their special tours. We were in Portland, so we went to Mount St. Helens. And that was really cool, even though it kind of was foggy and snowing when we got up there. It was interesting because one of the rangers had actually been in the area at the eruption and he said the view we had was very similar to how it was after the eruption. Very low visibility, and you had these grayish snowflakes floating down. So that was really interesting, from my perspective.
Q: Tell me more about the connections you made while you were there at Intel ISEF.
A: Well, with STS, a lot of STSers did go to the science fair as well. We still e-mail. I get an e-mail from some of those people at least once a day. We've been e-mailing consistently for over a year now. And also, the people who went to the Nobels, some with the Seaborg, some through their own country's competitions, we also consistently e-mail. And it's looking like next summer I might actually go and visit some of them.
Q: So, would you say those relationships helped you gain perspective on the world at large? What have you gotten out of them so far?
A: Well, it gives me a lot of hope. And we end up helping each other with different projects. There's a set of rocks in Australia similar to the ones I'm working with, and my friend Blake, who is from Australia, sent me a package with them. I've also been helping someone from South Africa prepare to come to the Intel ISEF. So, we do help each other out because we all have different expertise.
Q: Did you notice any trends in Intel ISEF research according to nationality? Were some countries better in some areas than others?
A: Well, I've noticed that Japan does really well in biology and chemistry. Germany has had some really good computer science in the past. China's all over the place!
Q: Do you have any plans to be involved with science fairs in the future?
A: I've been helping locally in Utah, advising at science fairs and STS to help students get prepared for the competition, because it is really intense. And also, I'm working with something called the Junior Stockholm Water Prize. It's kind of like a science fair specifically for water projects. Oftentimes, water projects kind of struggle at Intel ISEF, and it's another competition that just concentrates on quality research in water.
Q: So you think some fields get more attention than others at Intel ISEF?
A: Well, different fields can excel in different types of studies. You can get lots of quantitative and life-changing studies in chemistry and biology and engineering. It's a little bit harder to do that in environmental science, but you can get extraordinarily massive projects in environmental science. So, I think eventually it balances out, but it is harder to get attention in the environmental sciences. I think the reason is... Well, what are people really interested in? Environmental projects don't seem to get shown off as much - they don't hit the news.
Q: As the winner of the Seaborg Award at last year's Intel ISEF, you attended the 2006 Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies in Stockholm. What was your most memorable experience there?
A: Well, when I won I had to call Mr. Allen, who was my science teacher all through high school. Every December, he'd throw Nobel day. He had a life goal--when he was younger, he wanted to go to the Nobels. But as he got older, he realized that that probably wouldn't happen. So his life goal then became meeting someone who had been at the Nobels. And I, I actually started crying after I got the award, because it was something very, very important to my teacher, who had given a lot for his students. That's part of what made that entire experience so very special.
It was kind of funny, because, when they announced it I was mentoring some first-timers from Utah. I was sitting next to them explaining what each award was and its importance. And on the Seaborg Award, I was telling them, "This is an amazing award--going to the Nobels is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the student who wins!" And then they announced my name. I kind of got strange looks from the other students! But it truly met and exceeded all expectations. You get to meet the Nobel laureates, you get to participate in the entire process of the ceremony, then you go to the banquet and then the ball and then the nightcap. Going to that type of thing really made me feel like a princess, because I got to dress in a full gown. And at the same time, I also had the opportunity as part of the festivities to lecture to students from all over Scandinavia.
Q: What did you tell them?
A: Well, you have eight minutes to lecture about your research, and then they have five minutes to ask you anything they want. I got asked about how you start research projects like mine, how you find a river that might be polluted. And so I was able to give some advice to students who were interested in starting that kind of project in their own countries.
Q: How about some advice for current and future Intel ISEF participants? What are some things they need to know?
A: Don't listen to your iPod while with your project! It stops conversation with your neighbors. I've noticed it also seems to really annoy the judges, and it deters the public from trying to speak with you if they have a question about your project. Bring your iPod for the plane, that's fine, but when you're with your project, be in the moment.
I also found that bringing your homework is a positive thing, because you are after all missing a week of school. You need to keep your grades up. Last time, I actually had to write an essay about Venezuela for a class, and it turned out that a person across from me was from Venezuela! Totally took care of that. You have people with all sorts of specialties that would be willing to help, and sometimes that speeds up your homework and sparks really interesting conversations.
This should be obvious, but be sure to practice your project in front of other people before you do it in front of the judges. And also, don't expect to win your first time. I was a very rare case. After I won, my nickname was "Miracle Rookie" the rest of the year! It is so rare to actually place your first time. Just enjoy the competition and get to know the people you meet.
This next one's very important--bring more pins than you think you'll need. The pin exchange goes on all week, really. But most first-timers run out in the first hour. Also, bring keychains and random stuff that identifies your state, your home. If you have something cultural, bring it, someone will want to trade for it.
Q: What sorts of things did you trade and collect during Intel ISEF?
A: Well, I collected NASA pins. Now, I have all of the space shuttles, including the Enterprise and the Challenger--shuttles most people don't have pins for. I also have the International Space Station pin. I collected those all at Intel ISEF. Also, be sure to trade with someone from Costa Rica to get the frog pins. That's a tradition. You have to get one at Intel ISEF!