I took part in EUCYS (the EU Contest for Young Scientists) 2009 and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Somehow, that was two years ago (it feels like yesterday – I’m wondering if one of the projects went awry and affected the space-time continuum in such a way that time has gone faster since) and I am older and wiser – sufficiently so that I can see what I would do differently as well as how amazing it was. After corresponding on Twitter (twitresponding? tworresponding?) with the EUCYS account I decided to write down my advice for this year’s young scientists as a veteran of the contest. (Though the word veteran makes me feel ancient…)
Be proud of yourself
You – yes, you! – are one of the best young scientists in Europe. You’ve worked really hard to get a place at EUCYS and you’ve probably had to sacrifice a lot of time to do your project. Well done! If you’re the modest and/or self-deprecating type, remember this quote from Sherlock Holmes:
“My dear Watson,” said [Sherlock Holmes], “I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.”
In other words, acknowledging how good you are is logical. And a scientist is nothing if not logical…
Take a suitcase with a little extra space
I generally travel very light, but I always come back from science fairs and conferences with piles of paper (such as magazines, brochures for labs, leaflets from people’s stands, as well as the event brochure itself) and various knick-knacks – when I attended ESOF 2010 in Turin I had to buy a bigger suitcase to house it all! When in Paris I picked up enough stuff to make the journey back much harder than it had to be – you try balancing a rucksack, a shoulder bag, a little suitcase on wheels, a poster roll and a bunch of flowers! The moral of the story: take a big suitcase with a little extra space and maybe a rucksack too if you need it. You can always keep the empty rucksack in your suitcase if you end up not needing it, and a suitcase that’s not entirely full is no hardship, but the alternative is a lot more tricky to navigate!
Read up about the projects online
If you have a tendency to get overwhelmed then it might be worth your while to check out the EUCYS website and see what other projects will be there – especially in your field. Perhaps you could even mentally mark ones to check out that interest you – from there you can explore more freely as you get more confident. (I like to do the same with restaurant menus. But please don’t eat your fellow young scientists.)
Take some souvenirs from your home town or city
Your “escort” (the person who is in charge of accompanying you to EUCYS – though “escort” means something different in British English!) may provide you with some badges to give out to your fellow contestants, branded with your national science fair’s logo or something similarly suitable. However, I think it’s a really lovely idea to take a few of something else too, such as postcards or the sort of little things you can buy in souvenir shops in your town/city. For example, I was given a pen from Israel that has a prayer inside it! Don’t spend loads or get loads – just enough that you can hand out a little memento to people you meet. Postcards are the best, in my opinion – I don’t know about your area, but where I live you can get postcards for the equivalent of 23 euro cents, plus you can write your name and a message on the back. I have the ones I got from EUCYS 2009 up in my bedroom and love to look at them and reminisce. Plus it makes me look a lot more well travelled than I actually am… (Sweets from your country are a nice idea too. Everyone likes sweets.)
Take something summarising your project for people to take away
Similarly, I still have a lot of the leaflets that I picked up from EUCYS 2009 about other people’s projects, and they’re a really interesting read. I wish I’d had some of my own, so I am passing down that advice to you. Again, don’t get millions of leaflets (or flyers, or business cards, or whatever else) printed – just enough so that anyone who wants one can have one. Plus it’s good practice in summarising your project!
Boil down your project to the basics and then add details
For me this is the best way to work at any speech, especially when you’re explaining a difficult scientific concept (or several). See how few words you can use to still get the project across and use that as a hook. This is what I might start with for my project, “Listening for Ghost Particles: The Acoustic Cosmic Ray Neutrino Experiment (ACoRNE)”:
High energy neutrinos –> water –> sound pulse
ACoRNE: hydrophone array, off coast of Scotland
Studied background noise (whales and dolphins), filtering
Simulated sound pulses, hydrophone response
From there I would flesh those words out enough to make them sentences, then talk more about why neutrinos are important, the shape of the sound pulses, how I studied the background noise, my conclusions, why it was necessary, how I simulated the sound pulses, my conclusions, why that was necessary, why the ACoRNE project as a whole is important – you get the idea. You can always add more to your talk if you are talking to someone who wants to know more – it’s harder to give someone back a minute or two of their life after you’ve used it. It’s a good idea to get an idea of the level of your “audience” as well – a quick “how much do you know about this subject?” will save you from being either accidentally patronising or excessively technical!
Don’t be scared of the judges (or the other contestants)
They won’t bite. Seriously, the judging sessions may seem intimidating, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Try to treat it as an opportunity to enthuse another person about your project. Having said that, there’s always one judge that no one likes, but let me assure you that it’s them, not you, with the problem (and most judges are lovely and encouraging!). Don’t take any notice of how many judging sessions you or anyone else gets either – it’s not necessarily an indicator of getting a prize or not. If you’re shy or anxious you’ll know how hard it is to start up conversations with others, but you have one crucial weapon in your arsenal: you’re amongst people who have similar interests, and to similar degrees, as you. Just have a wander and find some projects that interest you, then strike up a conversation about them with their respective owners. I wish I’d done that – I spent far too long at my stand. If you do wander about don’t do it for too long at a time and leave a note saying “back in five minutes” in case a judge comes. Don’t be intimidated by projects that you think are better than yours or far more advanced (or that have prettier displays) – just enjoy the science. Finally, joining the Facebook group is also a great idea so you can keep in contact after the contest, plus joining in the conversation on Twitter. It’s likely you’ll make some great friends at EUCYS!
Take advantage of any trips out
There were “official” trips organised for all of the EUCYS participants, but I wouldn’t have seen half of what I did if I hadn’t taken advantage of the lunchtime and evening time trips that some of the student helpers ran. Some of the places we saw included the Champs d’Elysse, the Arc du Triomphe, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, Pont Neuf and Notre Dame! We also got plenty of opportunities outside of judging to wander around the Palais de la decouverte, where the contest was held.
Being there is the prize (but more prizes are also nice)
The aim of EUCYS is not to win; it’s to enjoy the experience. If you go for the sole purpose of winning you probably won’t get as much out of it (though if you feel differently then fair enough, don’t say I didn’t warn you…). The other contestants are not your rivals, they’re your peers! Having said that, winning prizes is pretty cool, particularly at EUCYS where your prize could be a trip to a lab and thousands of euros. Just don’t let that be your focus.
Do not take an electric guitar and proceed to strum it constantly even when you’re not demonstrating your project
Boys in the stand opposite me, I’m looking at you.
The short version of the above post is basically the photo at the start: keep calm and DFTBA (don’t forget to be awesome). But you won’t, because you are. So just have fun and enjoy the fruits of your scientific labours in the company of people who are just as passionate as you are about science! If you have any questions please feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them.