75th Intel Science Talent Search Awards Gala

My friend Annie told me that there was this really cool awards gala happening with a celebrity keynote speaker (more on that in a bit). She sent me the registration link and urged me to sign up! But I was instantly suspicious. The Intel Science Talent Search, maybe the most prestigious pre-collegiate science awards program in the country? A black tie gala? Dinner provided? Where was the catch? How much did I need to pay to get in? And, of course, what was I supposed to wear to this???

Long story short, I got in without a hitch, had a lovely time, and was totally blown away by these talented high school seniors whose dedication to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) is going to make the world a better place.

(Also I got to see Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson!)

Annie and I were panicking about whether we’d be allowed into this event ever since we registered. What if showed up looking drop-dead black tie formal and killin’ it… and then got turned away?

… We were prepared to slink away to eat burgers in our gowns. But also we opted to not go full stunnin’ so as not to attract too much attention in the event that we had to eat fast food for dinner.

I called the morning of the gala to confirm that we were still on the guestlist. The reason we started getting really nervous this week was that the link for the registration form Annie and I had used was no longer available, and the only registration form that was online was for guests of finalists. Which we were not. But we were both on the list, and the lady on the other end of the phone said, “We’ll see you there!” So… we were clear? I put on my go-to black dress that is formal enough for nice events but not too attention-grabbing (just in case) and set out.

This was actually my first visit to the National Building Museum, which is a gorgeous building and was home to last summer’s hit attraction “The Beach”. (A giant white ball pit. Super Instagram-able.) I got in line to check in, surrounded by women in floor-length gowns and men in tuxedos.The National Building Museum is really beautiful and I need to make sure to come back for a proper visit one of these days. (That’s the problem with the free Smithsonian museums; you know it’s free to visit and you never make the time to do it.)

Upon entering, we were able to check out the finalists’ posters, which were also available this past Sunday for people to check out. I haven’t done a poster session in a really long time (my research days feel so far behind me now…) but these high school seniors are doing really amazing research! You can check out the finalists and their research projects here if you want to feel very unaccomplished and are curious about the areas of STEM they were working in.

After a quick browse of the posters, meeting some really bright seniors, and helping ourselves at the open bar (I went a little crazy and asked for a Shirley Temple; oh yes, adulthood has wrecked me), it was time to get seated for dinner and the ceremony. Annie and I were seated really far away from each other, but after the first course, Annie made her way to my table even though I didn’t have as good of a view as she did. (Her table had an open seat… behind the giant columns that completely blocked the view. There were screens showing the camera’s view of the podium but still…) Dinner was fine: cod was really well-done, the beets were super tasty, and while I’m still unsure of what a “classic baba cake” is, I know that I like it!

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke after the entrée. He was allotted 20 minutes to speak and went on for well over half an hour, but people were eating up every word he said. If you’ve seen Key & Peele do their spoof of Dr. Tyson, you would have appreciated his story about watching his daughter watch the milk she spilled and then giving her more milk to spill. I like Dr. Tyson but I don’t loooove him. I did take issue with some of his stories (“why does your country have as many Nobel winners as my high school?”) and how he mentioned all white male scientists at an event where nearly all of the finalists were Chinese or Indian and where, for the first time in the history of the awards, there were more female finalists than male. That being said, his keynote speech was fun. He is a fun speaker, that’s how he has come to be one of the very public faces of the scientific community. (He and Bill Nye have that in common: they represent science for the masses, and they tend to go on longer tangents than they plan when they speak.) It was still a lot of fun to be able to see him in person!

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson himself!
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson himself!

The best thing about the evening really was celebrating the finalists. This was the 75th anniversary of these prestigious awards. I saw whole tables of alumni from the past few years, but also walked past alums from 1973 and earlier. They had one of the alumni from the inaugural 1942 class of finalists! There were so many Nobel laureates in that room, it might make your head spin. (You see why we were so nervous to be in that room…) The introductions as each finalist was brought on stage were really fun, highlighting each person’s personality and getting a smile or laugh out of the audience for each person. And the faces when the kids won their amazing prizes? When Paige Brown won First Prize for Global Good, she was visibly emotional. Behind me, I heard her family cheering and, when I turned around, I saw her mom start to cry. When Amol Punjabi won First Prize for Basic Research, he looked truly shocked that his name was called, jaw dropped and eyes wide.

Giant balloons celebrating the finalists
Giant balloons celebrating the finalists

Oh man, these kids are amazing. I am so jealous that they were able to meet each other and that they have already proven to the world that they are convicted and that they can achieve great things. To see more about the winners, please check out the press release here.

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