EU Contest for Young Scientists features starch, spinal fusion and autonomous driving

The top prizes in this year's European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) were awarded to a brother and sister from Germany, and two entrants from Canada.

EUCYS, which was staged in Dublin's RDS for 2018, is open to contestants in Europe and other countries throughout the world where national science competitions are staged.

The three joint winners were: siblings Adrian (20) and Anna Amelie Fleck (16) who developed a flexible body protection material from starch which solidifies on impact; Nicolas Fedrigo (17) who devised a probe with the potential to make spinal fusion operations more successful; and Brendon Matusch (15) who constructed an autonomous vehicle controlled by a computer model mimicking the human brain.

The winners receive €7,000 each and win a trip to the Cern research facility in Switzerland and to the European Space Agency.

Nicolas Fedrigo, who is from British Columbia, said the probe he developed was capable of detecting the difference between higher-density bone and spongy bone in vertebrae, so that screws could be placed correctly during surgery. It was tested on lamb vertebrae. "All of the work was done at home on my kitchen table," he told The Irish Times.

The Flecks said they plan to continue their research on “FleckProtec”, which they believe will bring considerable benefits in protecting athletes, cyclists and bikers. They also outlined its potential in head gear to protect people with Parkinson’s disease and autism.

Underground laboratory

Brendon Matusch said he was delighted with his win and he hopes to embark on a new project shortly looking at how "machine learning" might be applied to dark matter; a hypothetical form of matter thought to account for approximately 85 per cent of matter in the universe. He hoped this would be done at an underground physics laboratory, known as Snolab, which is located in a mine at a depth of 2km near his home in Ontario.

Irish entrant Simon Meehan (16) from Ballincollig, Co Cork, the 2018 BT Young Scientist and Technologist Exhibition winner, won the Expo Sciences Luxembourg prize for his project which investigated the antimicrobial effects of a natural chemical found in a blackberry bramble.

The prizes were presented to winners at a ceremony in Dublin Castle by deputy director-general of the EU Directorate-General for Research and Innovation Wolfgang Burtscher and Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor.

The three second prizes and three third prizes were awarded to projects from France, Estonia, Portugal, Georgia, South Korea and China – while six women won all three third-place category prizes.

EUCYS promotes female participation in the contest in the broader context of under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem). This year, 41 per cent of the participants were female (55 girls to 79 boys), while 41 per cent of winners were female.

Ms Mitchell O'Connor said it was inspirational to see so many young people from across the world engaged and excelling in the Stem subjects and representing their countries with such pride and determination. "I feel particularly honoured that Ireland is hosting the EUCYS, especially as we have such a strong track record in the contest," she added.

Inspiring event

EU commissioner for research, science and innovation

Carlos Moedas

said it was encouraging to see “so much talent in these young researchers and innovators. They are Europe’s future – with their ground-breaking discoveries and innovations that are no doubt to come, we will be able to better tackle the great challenges and ensure Europe’s prosperity and wellbeing.”

Chairman of the EUCYS jury Prof Tony Fagan said: "This year we had an exceptional line-up of projects across 10 categories. All participants demonstrated a high degree of insight and are a credit to their countries. I hope the students who participated in this year's contest will continue their research in their respective fields and inspire the next generation of Stem students."

He paid tribute to the board of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, which helped host EUCYS 2018.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times