West Cork has a strong track record of success at the BT Young Scientists, which opened this week. Emma Connolly spoke to some former winners
WINNING the over all BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in 2013, launched Kinsale’s Emer Hickey, Ciara Judge and Sophie Healy-Thow on an exceptional journey which brought them international acclaim.
As students at Kinsale Community School, their project examined the use of natural bacteria to increase crop output and saw them going on to take a top prize in the Silicon Valley Google Science Fair in 2014 and be named by Time magazine among the 20 most influential teens that year.
The girls, all now students at UCC, said the experience definitely helped bring them to where they are.
Emer said: ‘I’m currently studying Biological Sciences in UCC and absolutely love it. I want to specialise in microbiology, which is directly in line with the project I worked on. I think the experience of doing a research project at a young age inspired me to study science. Not only this, but the opportunities and people I met through the Young Scientist inspired me further.’
Science continues to play a big role in the 20-year-old’s life: ‘Every summer I go and work at London International Youth Science Forum, which is an international science forum for science students from all over the world. For me, it’s a brilliant way to meet scientists all over the world and see the role that science can play on a global stage.’
Doing a project outside of the classroom is an excellent way to see where your interests lie, she said: ‘At the BTYSTE you are not limited to what your project can be. You can literally work on any topic and any theme, once you follow a scientific method! For me this is an important aspect of the BTYSTE and a great reason to enter.’
Herself and Ciara used their passion for science to recently set up an agricultural research company called Germinaid Innovations – using the same concepts as their winning project.
Ciara, 20, explained: ‘We use novel scientific technologies to come up with solutions that help the world.’
The girls partnered with Bill Gate’s Seattle-based Intellectual Ventures during the last academic year which saw an intern carry out experiments under their direction.
Ciara herself travelled to Seattle to set up the lab and they hope to be able to deliver some of their findings in the coming months.
‘It’s all still under wraps,’ she said.
Sophie, who is studying International Development and Food Policy, has also gone on to make global headlines since the BTYSTE win. Last year she was chosen as the only Irish person to be included in a book that celebrates leadership in women across the globe. She was singled out to tell her story in choose to matter, a book by Julie Foudy, two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Sophie features along with heavy hitters, like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, for her work in highlighting food security and anti-bullying.
Sophie said: ‘I was approached to be in the book because she had heard of the work I am doing in the areas of food security as a Youth Leader for Zero Hunger, gender equality as a Trustee of ActionAid UK and anti-bullying with the ISPCC.’
As part of a team of nine, Sophie has also just been awarded €10,000 for a start-up company which aims to bridge the gap between older and younger farmers in Kenya to encourage innovation in the industry.
And she feels the starting point of it all was winning the Young Scientist competition and urges all students to consider getting involved.
‘I was so quiet before that – it was hard to get a word out of me but it launched me into a new world and gave me so much confidence in myself and what I can do.’
Ciara agrees, while admitting their journey has been a somewhat unique one: ‘Doors wouldn’t have opened for us without winning the competition. The confidence you gain from the competition can be applied to anything – not just science.’
John D O’Callaghan and Liam McCarthy, also students at Kinsale Community School, won the overall prize in 2009 for their project on a convenient test method of somatic cell count and its importance in milk production.
John went on to study biomedical engineering in CIT, while Liam chose biotechnology in DCU, and is now undertaking on a PhD in the UK in the same area.
Liam said he would definitely encourage students to enter the competition, which he said piqued his interest in science.