Undergraduate Awards summit goes global

This year’s programme brought 150 high achievers together for 4-day Dublin summit

The Undergraduate Awards summit, which concluded its 2015 meeting in Dublin on Friday, is planning to expand its activities to the seven continents in the coming years.

Students and graduates representing 41 universities around the world gathered at Google HQ in Dublin on Friday for the final day of the 2015 event.

Founded in 2008 by Oisín Hanrahan and Paddy Cosgrave in partnership with Ireland's universities, the non-profit event is designed to promote cross-discipline collaboration between attendees, all of whom are top performing students in their own field of study.

This year’s summit which brought 150 students together consisted of four days of talks, networking events, a gala dinner and a presentation ceremony.

Only students who scored highly in their coursework were eligible participate in the programme. Over 5,100 submissions spanning the sciences, humanities, business and creative arts were received from 255 institutions in 39 countries.

The best 150 papers were then selected by 243 judges from universities across the world.

"The nice thing about this is that all these people are top performers. They're not used to hanging out with such a large group of peers. It's a global network of scholars," said the event's executive director Louise Hodgson.

“It’s about recognising academic excellence and encouraging cross-border and cross-discipline collaboration and we are really hoping to ignite some globally significant projects.”

Ms Hodgson said it was her hope that the event would be of benefit to Ireland’s reputation abroad.

“The students are quite surprised to see that someone is so excited by academia.

"What we are hoping for is that they'll have this lovely memory of Ireland and that they'll associate their early success with Ireland and that will hopefully feed back in ten to fifteen years down the line."

Mr Hanrahan and Mr Cosgrave have since moved on and Ms Hodgson said the organisation is currently planning to expand. She said the first regional summit is due to be held in Canada in 2017 but that the intention is to eventually hold a summit on every continent.

“Our plan is to internationalise the summit - so, to have regional summits first and then always have the global summit in Ireland”

“Eventually, we’ll probably have seven summits - every year, one on every continent.”

Some 150 universities currently participate in the programme and Ms Hodgson said the organisation is hoping that number will increase to 500 within three years.

“One of the judges pointed out we really need to be nurturing the up-and-coming academics rather than only focusing on Phd level and that’s probably the reason that so many universities sign up to this,” she said.

The 2015 winning projects included research on Journalists Twitter coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher, making sense of scepticism and genetically modified mosquitoes.

Australian student Matilda Gillis (23) won the overall prize in the law category.

Her paper, No Peace for Women, was a study of transitional justice with a focus on East Timor and the failure by mechanisms such as truth commissions to address women's rights in societies as they transition to peace.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience - I would never have dreamed of being able to do this.”

“Hearing some of the science people talk was amazing. It is phenomenal what they are doing. I was standing in a room with people who could cure cancer one day or malaria or HIV. It just stunned me. They were passionate and they seemed to be making a difference already.”

Ronan O'Brien from Princeton University won the overall prize in the Languages and Linguistics category.

His paper Opportunity Be Knockin': Race and Invariant Be in Hip-Hop Language was a study on linguistics and hip-hop.

“I was looking at rap and race and social constructs and white rappers who generally aren’t as connected to the genre but they have to use linguistic traits to fit in to establish themselves.

“It’s nice that they are recognising work that we have already done. There aren’t very many award programmes for undergrads to it’s very valuable in that sense.”

“It’s been fascinating. I think the best part was meeting with other people. I’m the only person from my university who came. I wasn’t sure what to expect but everyone has been very friendly and amiable and it was cool to connect with people from all over the world.”

Summit chairman, Jim Barry, said this year's summit "worked out really well."

“We’re getting more used to it now. Every year we’ve increased the numbers so that’s always a challenge. We had 100 last year and 150 this year,” he said.

Mr Barry pointed out that the cross-discipline approach was critical.

“We’ve always felt that the multi-discipline nature of it is absolutely critical because problems aren’t silos, they are multi-dimensional.

“While there is a commonality in terms of intelligence and achievement that diversity of education and specialist areas makes this a very rich conversation for them.

“You get away from ‘same-speak’ - it does challenge them in a different way.”

Programme judge Dr Batoul Khalifa of Qatar University said the event was of great value to both the students and the universities they attend.

“Each of those students comes from different disciplines, different universities, different cultures - they are international. So, when they have to compete with students from other universities they have to meet the highest criteria in order to win one of the prizes.

“This is a credit to Ireland to bring all of these students together. For me, as a chair for the panel for psychology, we had more than 300 papers. The judges had the opportunity to review work from other institutions and this means they will compare what they are doing with students from other universities.”

A list of this year's winners and details of how to apply for the 2016 Undergraduate Awards can be found at undergraduateawards.com

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí is an Irish Times journalist and editor of the Irish Times Student Hub