Maths project cracks it for enterprising duo

Sat, Jan 14, 2012, 00:00

A MATHEMATICAL project that potentially could be of value to Nasa and space agencies around the world has won the 2012 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. Mark Kelly and Eric Doyle from Synge Street CBS, Dublin, claimed the top award with impressive research that included a way to help keep satellites more closely on their expected path.

The two last night expressed delight on their win, adding that they were surprised by it. “We knew we had the capability,” Mark said.

They share the top prize of €5,000, but also receive tickets to the Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place this year in London. They will also represent Ireland in the EU’s Contest for Young Scientists this autumn in Bratislava.

The top individual award went to Eoin Farrell of St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny. His project to produce a more accurate way to estimate the weight of children taken to hospital in an emergency wins a cheque for €2,400.

The runner-up group project went to Deirdre Harford and Colleen Kelly of Loreto Secondary School, Balbriggan, Co Dublin for their genetic analysis of the potato genome. The individual runner-up was Aoife Gregg of Loreto College, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, for her research into letter frequencies within the Irish language, with the group and individual runners-up prizes worth €1,200 each.

The Minister for Education and Skills Ruirí Quinn attended the awards ceremony. He praised the hard work and enthusiasm of the students and described the exhibition as an “incredible event”. When Ireland “got out of receivership”, the brainpower and abilities visible at the exhibition would help the economy, he said.

The judges praised Mark and Eric’s research, which looked at a famous mathematical problem dating back to 1760, the Euler Two Fixed Centre problem which related to planetary motion. This remained unsolved until finally dealt with by Irish mathematician Diarmuid Ó Mathúna in 2008, but they decided to expand on his work. They were trying to compare the accuracy of mathematical models that predict where a satellite is at any moment and hoping to improve on the precision of these models, Mark explained. They programmed Ó Mathúna’s formulas and then ran simulations on existing algorithms, blocks of software for determining a satellite’s location in space. “We devised our own algorithm for doing this,” Eric said.

They then began comparing their algorithm against existing ones used to control satellites. “If you send a probe into space you need to approximate where it is going to be,” Eric said. Their algorithm did this to a higher degree of accuracy. Higher accuracy is something that helps reduce the need to burn fuel to reposition the satellite, they said. Their algorithm is also smaller and faster than existing ones, and so would run more efficiently on board a satellite. It took them about eight months to complete their research.

Both students expect to study science subjects in university. Mark plans to do theoretical physics and Eric wants to do chemistry, specialising in molecular modelling.

The best individual award went to Eoin Farrell (15), a transition year student based in Donegal. His mother is a doctor and explained the importance of accurate weight estimation in children brought to hospital given that drug dosages are calculated based on weight. Yet it was often difficult or impossible to use scales if the child is very ill.

Current estimating methods are often based on age, but this had a low level of accuracy, Eoin said. Height-based estimates were more accurate but also had flaws. He conducted an analysis of the age, weight and height of more than 730 primary school students in his area and then developed his own approach. “I came up with my own age weight table that provides good estimates for children aged between four and 12.” He also devised a simple tape that could be used to measure a prone child and estimate weight.

Deirdre Harford (17) and Colleen Kelly (16), two fifth years from Balbriggan, analysed the recently published genome of the potato, looking in particular for genes that helped confer drought resistance. They first searched published databases of various plant species, such as the pea and the pepper, looking for known drought-resistance genes. They then used computers to reveal matches between these genes and genes within the potato genome.

They found hundreds of potential matches but many were false positive, occurring in parts of the potato’s genetic blueprint that did not function at all. Eventually they identified just three potato genes that are good matches for those in other species known to confer drought resistance. Their discovery could be used immediately by plant breeders to improve drought resistance.

Aoife Gregg (16), a transition year student, conducted a detailed analysis of the Irish language and devised a method to estimate the ages of various old Irish texts.

MAIN AWARDS

BT YOUNG SCIENTIST OF THE YEAR 2012

Chemical, Physical & Mathematical Sciences — Senior: Eric Doyle, Mark Kelly, Simulation accuracy in the gravitational many-body problem, Synge Street CBS.

RUNNER-UP GROUP

Biological and Ecological — Senior: Deirdre Harford, Colleen Kelly, A search for genes associated with drought resistance in potatoes, Loreto Secondary School, Balbriggan.

BEST INDIVIDUAL

Biological and Ecological — Intermediate: Eoin Farrell, Paediatric resuscitation: How reliable are existing weight estimation methods in Ireland?, St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny.

RUNNER-UP INDIVIDUAL

Chemical, Physical & Mathematical Sciences — Intermediate: Aoife Gregg, Cryptography: A study of the Irish language, Loreto College, - St Stephen’s Green.