Back to the future - where are they now?


It’s kicked off for another year and the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition has led many budding innovators onto even greater things. JOHN HOLDENtalks to some of the previous winners

2009 winners:

Liam McCarthy and John D O’Callaghan

Project: The development of a new test method for somatic cell count and its importance in milk production

At 13 and 14 years old, Liam McCarthy and John D O’Callaghan were two of the younger winners of the BT Science award. After their victory in 2009 for developing a new test method for somatic cell count, the lads were so happy they named a new baby calf “BT” to celebrate.

They then entered the EU-wide Young Scientist and Technology exhibition in Paris in September of the same year. Over the summer, they prepared for their European challenge by expanding their research and doing more tests on the project.

They ended up winning first prize in the EU competition, even though they were the only entry from Ireland and the youngest students to take part.

Work halted on their project in 2010 to concentrate on the Junior Cert. During the summer of 2010, however, Liam travelled to the London International Youth Science Forum. In the same year, the boys further developed the prototype of their apparatus to make it more commercially viable. They filed a European-wide patent but didn’t have the resources to take it any further at that time. Now 16 and 17 years old respectively, Liam and John are in fifth year and concentrating on the Leaving Cert.

They still hold the Irish patent and are very proud of what they’ve achieved. Liam is hoping to study general science at university while John hopes to get into biomedical engineering.

2006 winner:

Aisling Judge

Project: The development and evaluation of a biological food spoilage indicator

Aisling is now 20 years of age and is a second year student of chemical and bioprocess engineering in UCD. Last summer, she got herself a technical internship in Bord Gáis and next summer hopes to conduct research abroad in a relevant field to her studies.

In September 2011, she won first place in the National Irish Society of Pharmaceutical Engineers undergraduate presentation competition. As part of winning the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition, she also got the opportunity to get involved in promoting science to school children. She has continued this work in Dublin: in 2009/2010 she mentored two primary school classes in their participation in the national Primary Science Fair.

Aisling is still connected to the Young Scientist programme through her old school, Kinsale Community School. She spent Christmas in the school working with the 30 students and their 17 projects for this year’s competition. Charity and community work are very close to her heart, so last year she travelled to Belarus with Chernobyl Children International to help run a summer camp for mentally and physically disabled children. In 2010, she was recognised for her community work when she was named the Bank of Ireland National Student of the Year for Community Spirit.

She hopes to pursue postgraduate studies once she’s finished at university as well as continuing her involvement in the promotion of science to young people.

2005 winner: Patrick Collison

Project: Writing a new computer dialect called Croma for LISP (a family of computer programming languages)

At 23 years of age, Patrick Collison is the Irish version of Mark Zuckerberg. After the 2005 champion went on to win second place at the EU exhibition, he moved to the US to study physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He decided to shelve his studies for a while. But during this time, Collison co-founded tech company Auctomatic, which was acquired for $5 million by Canadian technology giants Live Current Media in 2008. The same year he became the new director of engineering for the company.

He is now the chief executive of Stripe, an online payments company and his research interests include programming languages, development environments, distributed systems and crypto currencies.

He wrote Encyclopedia, an application that stores a complete copy of Wikipedia on an iPhone, iPod Touch, or laptop. Naturally, Collison has his own Wiki page too. His application has been used by millions of people who lack internet access worldwide, including hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world.

Collison is now back studying, this time at Harvard. It is onwards and upwards for him. And what does he attribute all his success to? Winning the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition in 2005.

2000 winner:

Thomas Gernon

Project: The geography and mathematics of Europe’s urban centres

Dr Thomas Gernon won the Millennium Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition for his work on the numerical modelling of urbanisation trends in Europe. This was, and still is, the only project from the social and behavioural sciences category to win the overall award.

His project, carried out at Coláiste Rís in Dundalk, was also awarded the Alumni Prize at the European competition. Subsequently, he was honoured with “the highest form of recognition a county can bestow” – a joint civic reception from Louth County Council and Dundalk Urban District Council.

Gernon studied geology at UCD, graduating with first class honours in 2004. His PhD at the University of Bristol looked at the dynamics of explosive volcanic eruptions that brought diamonds to the Earth’s surface. Since 2009, he has been a lecturer in Earth science at the University of Southampton.

He has won several prestigious awards, including the 2004 Cunningham Prize of the Geological Survey of Ireland, and the 2010 President’s Award of the Geological Society of London, which “recognises outstanding talent in very early career geoscientists”.

At the age of 28, Gernon has already packed much into his career, from conducting geological surveys in the world’s largest diamond mines in the Kalahari Desert, to finding a $500,000 diamond in Arctic Canada, and surveying active volcanoes in the Lipari Islands, Santorini, Utah, Tenerife, Montserrat and the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East.

1985 winner:

Ronan McNulty

Project: The musical typewriter – a system which prints music as you play

After winning the Young Scientist Exhibition in 1985, Ronan studied physics for his undergraduate degree at UCD. He was awarded a double first in mathematical and experimental physics in 1989. After that he studied at the University of Liverpool where he was awarded a PhD in 1993.

He spent nine years working at CERN, the European Centre for Particle Physics, on the LEP electron-positron collider before moving to Fermilab, near Chicago, where he worked on the Collider Detector at Fermilab experiment at the Tevatron collider. He returned to Ireland in 2003 to found the only experimental particle physics research group in Ireland. He leads a team of 10 physicists who are members of the Large Hadron Collider Beauty (LHCb) experiment, an international collaboration of 700 physicists from 52 institutes in 15 countries. He is currently searching for the Higgs boson – otherwise known as the “God Particle” – using the data which the LHCb experiment accumulated in 2011.

1969 winner: Luke Drury

Project: The construction and use of a spectro-photometer to investigate complex ion formation in a transition metal

After winning the prize all the way back in 1969, Luke Drury went on to graduate from Trinity College in 1975 in pure mathematics and experimental physics. After that he went to Cambridge where he worked as a research student at the Institute of Astronomy. He was awarded the Isaac Newton Studentship in 1979, the same year he got his PhD for his thesis on some fluid dynamical problems in astrophysics.

In the 1980s Drury worked at the Max-Planck-Institut for nuclear physics in Heidelberg, Germany as a co-investigator on the photo polarimeter for the Infrared Space Observatory.

His list of positions, accolades and awards is pretty exhaustive (if Drury’s CV isn’t enough reason to want to get involved in the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition, nothing is). To name but a few of his achievements, he was awarded the Shakti P. Duggal Award at the 20th International Cosmic Ray Conference in Moscow in 1987, “in recognition of significant contributions to cosmic ray physics by a young scientist of outstanding ability”. He was also a member of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics Commission on Cosmic Rays from 1990-1996 and a member of the European Space Agency’s Astronomy Working Group at the same time.

Many other positions have also been held in between but he was most recently elected president of the Royal Irish Academy in 2011 and he is currently the director of the School of Cosmic Physics in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Drury has been travelling at light speed.