Cork trio on top of the world after scientific hat-trick

Three Cork teenagers have bagged the top prize at this year’s Google Science Fair for their project, Natural Bacteria Combating World Hunger.

Cork trio on top of the world after scientific hat-trick

Having already won the BT Young Scientist and EU Young Scientist competitions, this latest accolade creates a scientific hat-trick for Sophie Healy-Thow, 17, and 16-year-olds Ciara Judge and Emer Hickey, who beat more than 5,000 students to emerge victorious.

Google’s Science Fair, a global competition, was created to champion young scientific talent — something these girls, all from Kinsale Community School, have in spades.

As part of their research, the trio investigated how natural bacteria could be used as a growth aid for crops. After an extensive study on how the bacteria diazotroph affects germination rates, they found it increased crop growth by up to 50%, and barley yields by 74%.

These results have significant potential for increasing crop yield, providing a possible solution to food shortages in developing countries. It could also mean reducing the footprint agriculture has on the environment by reducing fertiliser needs.

Having tested thousands of seeds for the project, Emer revealed the extent of their dedication.

“We did a lot of our experimental work in Ciara’s house,” said Emer. “First we took over the spare room, then it expanded into the kitchen, the sitting room, the conservatory, the garden.

“We’ve been working on the project for two-and-a-half to three years now at this stage, so we’ve tested over 13,000 seeds. It’s been quite a lot of work but it’s really been worth it.”

Fresh from winning over the judges at Google HQ in California, Emer reveals their next goal is to “change the world” with their project. “I think we’re going to celebrate for the next two days and we’re looking forward to getting back to Ireland and meeting our friends, going back to school. In the long run, we’re definitely going to continue the project and try to commercialise it any way we can.”

Next year, the trio will jet off on a 10-day exped-ition to the Galapagos Islands with National Geographic. They’ll also receive almost €40,000 towards their project and a €20,000 scholarship.

Accolades stack up

The scientific accolades are stacking up for Ireland as Paul Clarke from St Paul’s College in Raheny, Dublin, took second prize at this year’s EU Young Scientist competition.

Paul successfully represented Ireland at EU-level after winning the BT Young Scientist award a few months ago. His project, entitled ‘ Contributions to cyclic graph theory’, was based on solving long- standing maths questions.

He will now spend a week in Geneva at CERN, the European particle physics centre.

The win marks another high point for Irish students on the international science stage after three Cork students scooped the top prize at Google’s Science Fair.

Where are they now?

Previous BT Young Scientist Winners:

-1965: John Monahan — Newbridge College, Kildare.

Where is he now? Vice-president, research and development at Synthetic Biologics, California.

-1969: Luke Drury — Wesley College, Dublin.

Where is he now? Astrophysicist at Max Planck Institute of Nuclear Physics, Germany.

-1984: Eoin Walsh — Colaiste Choilm CBS, Swords, Dublin.

Where is he now? Vice president of Morgan Stanley bank.

-1998: Raphael Hurley — Colaiste an Spioraid Naoimh, Bishopstown, Cork

Where is he now? Global director of health financing, at Clinton Health Access Initiative in Ethiopia

-1999: Sarah Flannery — Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal, Blarney, Cork.

Where is she now? Data analyst at RockYou, California.

-2005: Patrick Collison — Castletroy College, Limerick.

Where is he now? Co-founded Stripe in 2010. Lives in California.

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