Sunday 23 July 2017

Young scientists asking some of life's big questions

There was a record entry for this year's BT Young Scientist showcase. Students and teachers talk to Tanya Sweeney about what inspired them

Katie Lombard and Ellen Collins, Coláiste Choilm Ballincollig, Co Cork, who are addressing gender identity. Photo: Darah McSweeney/Provision
Katie Lombard and Ellen Collins, Coláiste Choilm Ballincollig, Co Cork, who are addressing gender identity. Photo: Darah McSweeney/Provision
Simon Leonard, Conor Lavin, and Michael Egan, Roscommon Community College, have a project on fertility

Forget what you may have heard about the entitled, self-involved Insta Generation. These days, Ireland's 'snowflakes' are all fired up, and have taken it upon themselves to go toe-to-toe with some of society's most pressing issues. And this sense of curiosity and thirst for answers is certainly writ large at this year's BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.

Founded in 1963 (and given its official name 17 years ago), this gathering of young minds boasts an iron-clad tradition of innovation and imagination. And, this year, the projects run the gamut, from geology and pharmacology to psychology and technology.

Yet, it's the breadth of the social and behavioural sciences topics that catch the eye. This year's bright young minds are turning their acumen to such salient topics as fertility awareness, gender spectrum awareness, the HPV vaccine, sexual consent, ageing, dating methods and even wine as 'the new tea'. Research, in other words, that is likely to light the blue touch paper even after this week's event ends.

Says Mari Cahalane, head of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition: "These students are looking at what's interesting and getting society talking. They see these issues being raised in the press and on social media, and the conversations are being started among their peers and at home.

"We don't really do the lab coat thing anymore," she adds with a wry smile. "For a long time, scientists were seen as nerds… God, they're so far from it now."

There has long been a perception that female students have gravitated towards the behavioural sciences category leaving 'harder' sciences like physics, technology and chemistry to the boys. This year's entrants don't necessarily conform to that notion.

Of the 4,591 students who entered from 375 schools across the country, 61pc of them are female, and 39pc are male. Social and behavioural sciences is the most popular category (41pc of entries), followed by biological and ecological sciences (29pc), technology (16pc) and chemical, physical and mathematical sciences (14pc).

Ellen Collins (16) and Katie Lombard (15), from Colaiste Choilm in Cork, are addressing the issue of gender identity in their project, 'Did you just assume my gender? - Gender spectrum awareness in young people'.

"Based on the projects our class mates would have been doing [in preparation for this event], you'd definitely notice a trend of what type of project each gender would do," says Ellen. "But the fact that our school heavily promotes and encourages STEM for girls is a great leap forward, and the interest is certainly there."

Their teacher, Paudie Scanlon, adds: "My background is more science, so this more social topic is sort of new to me. I'm impressed with the students' ability to say, 'let's have this talk'. Historically, it's always been the case that girls shy away from [hard sciences]. In some cases we don't have the role models in those areas for the girls yet."

Elsewhere, students Tara Dolan (16) and Chloe Kilkenny (15) from Magh Ene College in Donegal are presenting their project, 'A survey of parental attitudes in the North-West towards the HPV vaccine'. Both see this as not just a 'female' issue, but a societal one.

"I find that even in conversations in social sciences, the females in our class are more vocal," says Tara. "These are the things we tend to speak about. The boys in the class are definitely more focused on the other sciences."

Their teacher, Yvonne Higgins, delights in nurturing the interests of her charges and enabling them to "develop an enquiring mind".

"I think it's easier for many students to engage in the behavioural sciences category," she says. "It's all about tapping into that natural curiosity and seeing how they can run with a project. Down the years, most of our Young Scientist students would have been girls, which I guess goes against that general perception of girls not being interested in science. In our school a lot of the science department is female, and we promote the physical sciences and maths to girls."

If some Irish schools experience a gender divide when it comes to interest in the respective scientists, Simon Leonard (16), Conor Lavin (16), and Michael Egan (17) from Roscommon Community College are bucking the trend with their project, 'Insight from a new Generation - Fertility Issues'.

"When they did the research, they found that it's an issue that boys don't discuss and they feel it's a 'female' issue," explains their teacher Joanne Broggy Shea. "I think we as teachers were interested to see how the boys would deal with the research; after all, you don't hear boys talking much about ovulation. It was met with a little bit of joking but they settled into the work very quickly. It made for a refreshing change."

Says Simon: "We found that a lot of people thought that only women could be affected by infertility, but nearly 800,000 people in Ireland are affected. That's a pretty big number, and there's a severe lack of knowledge and awareness in our generation."

With VHI running their own sizeable research project on infertility, Simon and his classmates would like to see their own research findings grow legs even after this year's BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition winds down.

Certainly, alumni from years past have managed to parlay their experience into a lucrative career path. Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy Thow, who won at the Exhibition in 2013, went on to be named in 'Time' magazine's top 30 most influential teenagers in the world, for their research on diazotroph.

Famously, Patrick Collison scooped the gong in 2005 with a project entitled 'CROMA: A new dialect of lisp', and went on to found Strype, making Patrick and his brother John Ireland's youngest self-made billionaires. Kate (16) and Annie Madden (15), who appeared at the 2014 event, have founded animal food supplement company FenuHealth, and already have a staff of six, exporting to racing camel owners in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, this year's high-achieving entrants already have career success in their crosshairs.

"I would be interested in pursuing a career in journalism or politics, both of which could be used as platforms to promote LGBT issues, which I feel would be an important thing to do," says Ellen Collins.

Watch this space, in a word.

• The BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition is at the RDS, Dublin from today until Saturday, January 14. For more info, see btyoungscientist.com

Irish Independent

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