A TRIO of young friends clutched hands in disbelief as they learnt that their project, sparked by a mundane discovery in the garden, had landed them the prestigious BT Young Scientist of the Year award.
With tears rolling down their cheeks, the 15-year-old third year students from Kinsale Community School, Co Cork, said they had given up hope of winning just before their names were called.
"I just can't believe it," Emer Hickey uttered, as she clutched the hands of her teammates and best friends Ciara Judge and Sophie Healy-Throw.
"We had started giving up," said Sophie, adding how the clock ticked by as the judges called the lengthy list of winners.
Their project – A statistical investigation of the effects of Diazotroph bacteria on plant germination – was all sparked by a day gardening with Emer's mother, Francis Hickey.
"My mom was gardening and she found nodules on roots that contained bacteria and it went from there," Emer explained.
Sophie revealed that, after coming up with the idea in February, they put in long hours carrying out their projects.
"We sped up germination in some cereal crops by about 50pc. It has commercial uses potentially if we bring it forward more," Emer said.
"Germination in seeds is usually six days but we brought it down to three days in wheat and barley by using the Rhizobium we found," Sophie added.
Head judge Mary Kelly-Quinn said the girls had a "brainwave" when they used the bacteria to accelerate germination rates in food crops.
The Young Scientists landed the trophy, a cheque for €5,000 and a chance to represent Ireland at the EU-wide contest.
The girls were following in the footsteps of Ciara's older sister, Aisling (21), who won the award in 2006.
Teacher Shaun Holly said he was "delighted" for the girls, whose win made it a hat-trick for the school, which has won the overall award three times since 2006.
Earlier, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn was left blushing as he sparked a raucous round of applause as his teenage audience appreciated his words that they would "never forget the teacher who turned you on".
Other awards included the Best Individual which went to Edel Browne from Presentation College, Galway, for her project 'Free Feet' which was a device to reduce the freezing of their gait in Parkinson's disease.
The group runner-up award went to Deirdre Ruane-McAteer and Emma Shields from Bush Post-Primary School, Carlingford, Co Louth, for their analysis of views on the controversial topic of abortion and religion, while the award for individual runner-up went to Shauna O'Neill from Scoil Muire gan Smal, Roscommon.