A 15-year-old student from Co Cork who discovered a natural antibiotic in a blackberry bramble plant in his back garden has won the top prize at the 54th BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.
Simon Meehan of Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, who was declared BT Young Scientist and Technologist of the Year at an awards ceremony in Dublin’s RDS on Friday night, found the “non toxic, organic, original antibiotic” after analysing 10 plants widely available in his locality.
"People are going deep into the Amazon rainforest looking for new antibiotics. But I'm a 15-year-old boy who found this down his own back garden. That has got to be amazing," he told The Irish Times.
“I feel, without disrespecting the scientific community too much, that there should be some conclusions from this. We are over-thinking science in too many ways.”
His work combined botany, microbiology and analytic chemistry to demonstrate its effectiveness in killing Staphylococcus aureus, a bug that infects humans and is increasingly resistant to antibiotic treatment, especially when it comes in the form of the hospital-acquired infection MRSA. It was also shown to be effective in killing Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a potentially deadly bug, especially for those with cystic fibrosis.
He extracted anti-microbial agents from aerial parts of plants and their roots using ethanol and then tested their antibiotic effects.
The fourth year student has dedicated his work to his grandfather, Eddie Lucey, a well-known herbalist and science teacher in Bandon. Now 82, he helped people with medical conditions using herbs grown in his back garden; a tradition going back generations in his family.
“He has inspired my work. I am indebted to him for my knowledge.”
Simon, who had a framed picture of his grandfather on the display stand for his project, believes he is inheriting that rich tradition but in a different way. He loved botany as a child, he said, and that grew with the help of his teacher Karina Lyne into an avid interest in microbiology. He hopes to go on to a career in pharmaceuticals.
Judge and chair of the biological and ecological sciences category Prof John O’Halloran, said: “This is a really exciting project which explores the possibility of the blackberry leaf extract’s ability to control harmful bacteria.
“The unexpected findings deliver a unique approach to killing bacteria using natural plant active ingredients. The rigour of the approach adopted by Simon set his project apart from competitors and made him our overall winner.”
The best group prize went to twins James and Harry Knoblauch, and Oran O’Donoghue of St Brendan’s College in Killarney for their work on conformity, and how minorities can influence it.
The fifth year students did a series of experiments on how individuals can influence a group. Their research was prompted by taking a Ryanair flight together.
“When the plane landed; ‘another Ryanair flight on time’ was announced. Someone clapped, and then everyone started clapping,” explained James.
They were determined to examine the psychology behind such behaviour. In groups of six people, they analysed the effect of laughter, clapping and instruction to people not to open a document.
They went on to evaluate groupthink and faulty decision making because of peer pressure, which included an examination of former British prime minister David Cameron’s decision to proceed with the Brexit referendum.
“We believe our research shows the need for a critical evaluator or a devil’s advocate in the room when people are making big decisions,” added Harry.
They hope to extend their research to evaluate how people vote and examine how political beliefs are formed.
Runner-up group prize went to three students from Coláiste Treasa in Kanturk, Co Cork, who investigated how a natural occurring bacteria could be used to increase phosphorous absorption in varieties of barley and boost crop yields.
Darragh Twomey, Neil O’Leary and Andrew Heffernan concluded the use of Pseudomonas fluorescens could benefit people living in the Third World in particular as the benefits could be achieved in drought conditions.
They grew five varieties of spring barley on Darragh’s family farm without using fertilisers, and then harvested and threshed it by hand to mimic conditions in the developing world.
The runner-up in the individual category was transition year student Claire Gregg (16) of Loreto College, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, who developed a computer model to analyse the housing shortage in Ireland.
With the help of her teacher Louise Kerr, she has developed an interest in coding, and in particular “coding behaviours” which was very suited to her project.
Having built the system using software she sourced in Northwestern University in the US, she tested a range of options to deal with the crisis, particularly “early stage policy changes” to address the shortage.
Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy visited her stand and confirmed her findings reflected those of his department, she said. “It’s very cool to have the housing minister come and tell you that you’re pretty much right,” she added.
BT Ireland managing director Shay Walsh said this year’s exhibition had exceeded all expectations showcasing projects and innovations which are now, more than ever, pivotal for the future of our society.
“Our theme for this year’s exhibition is ‘It Starts Here’ - but this is only the beginning and it is vitally important that every student’s voyage of discovery does not end here.”
He congratulated all those who entered, and the overall winner.
“Simon’s innovative skills and entrepreneurial approach are critical to research and development led companies like BT,” he added.