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What I learned from messing up my biology extended essay

Each year we invite IB alumni to share their experiences, interests and advice with our global community in the graduate voices series. We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Lim Hui Yuan to share some tips and advice to DP students completing their extended essays after completing her DP education at Hwa Chong International School.

Scientific accessories on the table. Education and science concept.

By Lim Hui Yuan

I’m sure all the current and past IB students know the hardship of completing an Extended Essay (EE). And for those who are not familiar with EE, it is actually “an independent, self-directed piece of research”, which culminates into a 4,000-word paper.

To many (including me), EE was a real boot camp training because of the effort and tenacity it requires one to possess. Well, it was quite daunting a time for me, BUT—I have to admit that I learned a lot from messing up my project. Looking back, the nine months I spent on my EE was indeed an endurance experience.

Here are my takeaways from almost failing my Biology EE. Some of them might be relevant to other EE subjects, but they mainly revolve around the challenges I personally faced.

Knowing what you’re interested in isn’t always that easy

They always say, “follow your heart”

“Pick a project topic that you are interested in.”

Sometimes, we might not even know what our heart wants and where our interests actually lie. We students face a dilemma when choosing an EE subject or topic in the same way we are confused when standing at the junction of deciding which university path to choose.

There is a plethora of topics that we could work on, but not all of them could keep us motivated for more than half a year. I chose, “The Efficacy of Natural Plant Extracts and Commercial Disinfectants in Reducing Bacterial Growth.”

I like to think of it like becoming a gardener. Your project starts off small, you have to nurture it, and once the research topic is settled, it just keeps growing. In the end, you’ll have an EE that has grown from just a tiny seed into a big plant you are really proud of.

Nevertheless, I came to realise that no matter what topic you choose, as long as you pour your heart into it, you will not regret the outcome.

Asking yourself, “why do I want to do this project?” helps to keep you on the right track (even if the answer was “to get a good grade”).

Failing is more common than succeeding

After diving into my biology EE, I realised how easy it was to carry out experiments in class compared to conducting your research project. There’s no lab manual you can simply refer to. Instead, you have to create your own recipe, adapting from previous work. And since it’s your own custom-made experiment, you can never predict how the results will turn out.

As much as you try to fix the controlled variables, it seems like you can’t control the outcome of the study.

In my case, I expected some of the plant extracts to show antibacterial properties. However, I underestimated how mischievous the bacteria can be, contaminating all my plant samples.

I took the success of the experiment for granted.

This bump went on for over five months. At one point, I was so traumatised by the lack of progress that I couldn’t bring myself into the lab. Frustrated and drained, I was on the verge of giving up.

Here’s when you should take a breather to flush away the negative emotions and reset everything—including your impression of the project itself.

Learn to move on

Just as the wise Ryan Higa mentioned, “here’s a bridge; now, get over it”.

Whatever will happen has happened and all you can do is to move on.

After getting yourself ready for a fresh start, you should turn on troubleshoot mode and make amendments to your procedures. Try to pinpoint the problem and then search for plausible solutions to tackle it. The trial and error method is the only way!

Plan ahead

Imagine beginning to piece a puzzle together; you usually know what the big picture looks like first before connecting the parts. The same applies to your EE. Plan ahead.

Set mini-deadlines as you draft your action plan. The timeline is essential so that you don’t feel too overwhelmed by a load of work (especially when you have a month left to write your EE after getting your results, which was exactly my case).

Be careful not to be too optimistic with the progress of your experiments. I expected and planned that mine would take at most two months to finish, but I completely neglected some time factors such as time needed for the bacteria to incubate, to make the agar plates, the opening hours of the lab (which leaves me only a few hours after school), and of course, failures.

You may have a supervisor to nag you about your EE progress. However, once you’re out of high school, nobody will be there to alarm you and snoozing off will cost you more than just your grades.

You’re not alone on this

If it weren’t for my EE supervisor and friends, I would’ve given up.

My EE supervisor kept encouraging me and taught me how to endure an initial lack of results, and I’ve learned since then that this is actually a norm of scientific research. One of my best friends, who was also doing a biology EE, took his time to teach me how to write a biology EE amidst his busy schedule (you know who you are, thank you!).

Remember to discuss your difficulties to your advisor or friends; they’ll be your pillar of support.

EE is not only here to prepare you for undergraduate research, but also provide a resilient attitude for life, in general.

Honestly, I’m quite grateful that I faced so many problems during the process. It feels like playing a game with many obstacles and overcoming each hurdle leads you to a higher-level ranking. I am, by no means, a “Legend”, but I’ve certainly passed the “Rookie” level.

P.S. Remember to pat yourself on the back after completing your EE. After all, you’ve shed blood, sweat and tears into raising your seedling into a plant.

yuan square

Lim Hui Yuan is a graduate of Hwa Chong International School, Singapore. She is currently pursuing her degree in science, specifically a major in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, at the University of Hong Kong. She likes to experiment with new things and loves dancing and cooking. Also, you can find her binge-watching dramas most of the time.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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