Why you should be a science fair judge

Judges compare notes at a Delaware Valley Science Fair in Philadelphia. SHEILA ROMINE

There are a million things that can make you sick: touching a dirty doorknob or, say, sitting next to a coughing neighbor on an airplane. But Janssen Pharmaceuticals principal scientist Karen Duffy recently learned about an unexpected, more subtle disease source – neckties. “Here was something that could be harboring bacteria that no one, to my knowledge, had considered a potential spreader of germs before,” she says.

Duffy didn’t have this epiphany reading about necktie research in a scientific journal or seeing it presented at a professional conference. She learned about it while serving as a judge for the Delaware Valley Science Fairs, where bacteria on neck ties was explored in a seventh-grade student’s research project.

Such innovative projects are a staple of the thousands of middle and high school science fairs that take place annually across the country. Students present their research projects in a variety of science, technology, engineering and math categories, and expert scientists and engineers judge the work. The best projects are chosen to be entered into the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where the winning student walks away with $75,000.  

While never lacking in enthusiasm, one thing local fairs are in constant need of is judges, especially in the topics of biochemistry and molecular biology. “We need subject matter experts to evaluate the projects,” explains Ingrid Weigand, executive director of the Austin Science Education Foundation, which supports the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival.

According to Jon Hicks, a senior associate scientist at Janssen and also a judge for the DVSF, the task of judging is straightforward. “Show up on the day of the fair and provide meaningful, encouraging feedback for students around the projects you are selected to judge,” he says.

Duffy adds that the time commitment is “only one day, and it is not a very long day!”

Student members of an ASBMB Student Chapter can apply to present a $50 judging award on behalf of the society. For more information, click here or email us.

Science fair judges I spoke with are in agreement about the merits of volunteering their time. Duffy says that “the best part is sharing in the excitement of a student who is proudly sharing his or her research.” Former Janssen scientist Ray Sweet, who serves on the DVSF board of directors, says he always is “astounded by the maturity, intellect, accomplishment and interest of students of all ages.”

The fairs have an added benefit of inspiring the next generation of scientists. Sweet points out that serving as a judge is “about supporting students and being a face-to-face role model for them.” Duffy agrees, adding that discussing their research with professionals from different scientific backgrounds challenges the students to think about their experiments in different ways. And, she says, “the judges learn about what types of research excite our future scientists.”

By all accounts, serving as a judge is comes with a big payoff. Volunteering “is just a rewarding, positive experience all around,” says Hicks. For Sweet, the fairs represent something even bigger: “A constant reminder that all is not lost in the world.”

Any active scientist is eligible to judge, and, no matter where you live, there is guaranteed to be a fair happening within driving distance. To find a science fair near you, click here and search for your ZIP code. Questions? Contact us.

Geoff Hunt Geoffrey Hunt is ASBMB’s outreach coordinator. Follow him on Twitter.