Tipperary students win 2023 BT Young Scientist competition

Project by Shane O’Connor and Liam Carew from Abbey School assessed effects of secondary school on 2,500 students

Two students at the Abbey School in Tipperary have won the overall award in the 2023 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition with their study on the impact of second-level education on key aspects of adolescent life and development.

Sixth-year pupils Shane O’Connor and Liam Carew win a cash prize of €7,500 and will go on to represent Ireland later this year at the EU Contest for Young Scientists.

In their study over the past three years all school types were examined, with 2,500 students and 220 teachers throughout Ireland participating in a comprehensive survey – their analysis of trends and attitudes runs to more than 300 pages, with implications for education policy and for schools. It aimed to assess the social, mental and physical effects of secondary school on different groups of students.

While physical health and wellbeing were highly emphasised in single-sex schools, it was not the case for mixed schools, they found.


“An alarmingly high level of students do not acknowledge being in receipt of or having ever been in receipt of educational guidance on their mental health,” Shane told The Irish Times. This contrasted with the perception of teachers on mental health guidance.

Their research also suggests that if students are going to give up physical activities including “hobby sports”, 83 per cent will do so during the junior cycle, their first three years at secondary school.

Liam said their findings needed to be widely communicated, with obvious targets needed for the Department of Education “but also policymakers, advisers, teachers and pupils”. They also underline the importance of social interaction in every aspect of school life, he said.

He added there was a “massive sports emphasis in our school” driven by principal John Kiely, who is manager of the Limerick hurling team, but that was not seen in many other schools.

They were helped by their teacher chemistry and biology teacher Niamh McCarthy with the project in the social and behavioural sciences category. Chair of the judging panel in that category, Prof Joe Barry, paid tribute to their “very impressive survey examining how secondary school students perceived school to impact on their social, physical and mental wellbeing”.

One of the key findings was that while inequality was prevalent in DEIS schools, exponential improvements in areas of pastoral care and physical health are quickly closing this gap, he added. “To quote directly from the students’ research, ‘Secondary school is a vital social outlet for students and this can be seen across our interviews, focus groups and in particular in our survey’.”

Best individual was Ayush Tambde (17), a sixth year student at Stratford College, Dublin, who studied how mechanisms cause healthy cells to become cancerous. His main interest is quantum computing but having entered the competition four times, winning prizes in successive years, he said he decided to apply his skills this year to making computational biology faster and more efficient.

He undertook computer analysis of “proteomic data” and built a data-driven model detailing how changes occur in breast cancer cells – while also coming up with possible interventions to reverse this.

Protein pathways are “tightly knit signals” that go awry when cancer occurs, he explained. He hopes his possible interventions will now go on to be evaluated in a laboratory setting. If they are validated, he added, it brings the possibility of being “a great help in the prognosis of breast cancer”.

Contest judge Dr John Monahan said the project had “taken new protein biology approaches to relook at an important existing data set and come up with novel insights into potential treatments for these difficult to treat basal cell breast cancers”.

The individual runner-up award was won by Adrian Dragomir, a sixth year student at Adamstown Community College, Co Dublin, for his development of a new “air-aluminium cell” capable of powering small devices but also larger ones by combining the cells into a battery.

Aluminium-based batteries could play a role in the provision of sustainable energy, according to judge Prof Orla Feely. “This project demonstrates through very detailed experiments how the design of the electrode impacts the battery performance and points the way to future design. The judges were very impressed by Adrian’s passion for the subject and his detailed implementation of the scientific method,” she added.

Olivia O’Shea, with sisters Erica and Abigail O’Brien Murray, fifth year students from Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, won the runners-up group category for their investigation into how to save the common ash tree.

With ash dieback being the most serious tree disease to arrive in Ireland in over 50 years, they provided robust data to highlight potential treatments using plant hormones which could, in combination with other actions, protect native ash trees.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Minister for Education Norma Foley said the calibre of each entry “is a testament to the tenacity and talent of the students behind them, and it is this constant high standard that makes BT Young Scientist one of the longest running, and most successful STEM events in Europe”.

Exhibition co-founder Dr Tony Scott presented the founder’s medal to retired diplomat Dr Vincent O’Neill, who helped establish young scientist competitions in Kenya and Jordan modelled on the Irish version when serving in those countries as Irish ambassador.

Addressing this year’s participants managing director of BT Ireland Shay Walsh said that with the return of the BTYSTE to RDS after two online versions of the contest due to Covid, “the past week has been truly inspiring, and I am in awe of your unique and individual talents. The level of creativity, innovation and research has been nothing short of remarkable”.

He congratulated the winners, “who join a special group of some of Ireland’s brightest minds” and paid tribute to teachers, parents, guardians and everyone “who supported the students who entered on their journeys”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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