Sarah Flannery on how the Young Scientist changed her life

SOME aspects of the Young Scientist competition have faded but not many because it changed my life forever. !I absolutely loved it. I went there thanks to a teacher at my school who was always encouraging people to attend. I had all the fears that someone might have about what this thing was going to be like, whether I was going to make any projects that would be worthwhile for it.

Sarah Flannery: Would encourage any young person to take part

“Anyone who walks into that hall who sees all those exhibits and feels all the energy, especially coming from the team projects… it’s unbelievable. It was a great experience and like I said, for me, it completely changed my life, especially because of the prizes I won, and I got a disproportionate amount of attention at the time because of the subject of my project and being a girl, I think.

“Going on to the European Young Scientist was also really fantastic because there were fewer participants, which meant it had a different feel to it, but you got to know a lot more of them. It took place in Thesaloniki in Greece and we just hung out together between the hotel and the exhibition hall. That was also a great experience even though it was even more of a daze because I couldn’t believe that I won that also.

“My dad is a maths teacher, he’s now retired, but he was a lecturer at CIT. He retired as the head of the mathematics department there. Growing up, he would have us doing puzzles and he taught me lot of maths outside of school and showed me that it is a very interesting subject.

“Unbridled enthusiasm is not something you see all that often and this is a place where it’s highly encouraged and people are enthusiastic about something that they’ve worked hard on. That’s a very important message and it’s something that gets lost in other kinds of successes, the idea that because the Young Scientist is a long-term project there’s a lot of work that goes into creating the whole project and people do spend many, many months on it. it’s a nice club to be a part of.

“I went on to a field — computer science — that is very dominated by men. There are so many ways in which both girls and boys are turned off mathematics so early in life. I read a study where someone was asking five-year-old who had not even started school, a series of maths questions and what came out often from them was that they were not going to be good at maths — or math over here. For a five-year-old to be already introduced to that concept without even having started their education about the world around us is extremely disappointing.

“When it comes to adults and you’re trying to work in that field I think there’s an impression that women have to prove themselves a lot more. But I believe that it’s lessening and lessening and there are companies out there that are very gender neutral. I’ve certainly had experiences where I’ve gone for an interview in a place that I felt that no matter how interesting the product was, the company was ridiculously male-dominated.

“The opportunity that science can give you is absolutely incredible. It offers a career path where you get a skill, you get qualified in that skill, and makes looking for jobs and finding jobs so much easier. Then you have a very fulfilling life where you have the opportunity for learning and expanding your knowledge all the time.

“For young people trying to get involved in science I would advise people to just get started somewhere and if you do have a teacher in your school who has had some exposure to the Young Scientist exhibition, that’s a great help. The YS contest is a great thing to focus your attention and help you get through the process of making a full project and keeping you to certain deadlines and so on. You just have to get started and try to figure out the things you like. With work comes the reward.

“Strictly speaking, I don’t really work in science. I do analytics and data visualisation for a computer game company called RockYou Inc. I deal with numbers all the time, my whole job is about collecting data around the players who are playing the game who’s turning out to be the most lucrative type of player; how can we figure out to get more of those and give them a better experience.

“We were based in Silicon Valley until we moved to San Francisco a few months ago, which suits me because I live in San Francisco and now I have a very short and less maddening commute.

“I moved away from Ireland when I went to university in Cambridge, England. Then I moved to Champaign, Illinois, where I worked for Wolfram Research who are the makers of Mathematica, technical computing software that I use to this day in my own work. I’m married to a French-American and I’m six months’ pregnant. I also have four stepkids.

“The Young Scientist really did change my life and I would encourage any young person to do it.

“It wasn’t as if making those applications to Young Scientist weren’t absolutely terrifying for me at the time, but they certainly were worth it!”


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