Young scientists from Cork may commercialise their food tech idea yet

5 Nov 2014

Sophie Healy-Thow, Émer Hickey and Ciara Judge chat with Silicon Republic CEO Ann O'Dea at last night's Women Invent Meet-up in Dublin. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

The young ladies who won the 2013 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and the recent Google Science Fair say they may commercialise their winning idea yet.

Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow from Kinsale Community School in Co Cork not only won the BT Young Scientist and Technology Award in 2013 but they also recently won the Grand Prize at the Google Science Fair, as well as the 15-16 age group category for their project entitled Combating the Global Food Crisis: Diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop growth promoter.

The girls were also honoured alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai on Time magazine’s list of The 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014.

The girls’ project investigated the use of diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop germination and growth aid.

They carried out an extensive study on crops of wheat, oats and barley. Statistical analysis of their results indicated that naturally occurring Rhizobium strains of the diazotroph bacteria family accelerated germination by up to 50pc and, in the case of barley, increased yields by 74pc, which has implications for food production, Émer explained at Silicon Republic’s Women Invent Meet-up in Dublin last night.

Not only could this discovery address food poverty, it could also reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint by reducing the use of fertiliser.

Sophie added that by 2050, the world will need 50pc more food. “If we can speed up the food production process by 50pc it will lead to a 74pc dry mass yield for farmers and it will have only cost them 4pc more to do this.”

BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition winners prove doubters wrong

Sophie explained that when they were working on the project they were in the midst of their Junior Cert at the time. “We were 14 and didn’t expect to win at all. We were told by many top scientists that it wouldn’t work, that it had never been done before.

“Our attitude was: if it has not been done then how do you know it’s not going to work?”

Ciara explained the idea is ripe to be fostered. “It’s not a product but a mechanism and we hope to bring it all the way to commercialisation. It’s in the public domain, we have no patent. It was only after displaying it in the competition that we thought we might have patented it.

“But we think of the bigger picture and it’s good that it has not been patented. We want to bring it to commercialisation ourselves but we don’t mind if someone beats us to it.”

Ciara said Kinsale Community School’s tradition of winning at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is due to the enthusiasm and commitment of the teachers and students.

“Over Christmas, our science teacher would bring his young daughter in and we’d all look after her while working on our project. There’s a good tradition of teachers who are dedicated to coming in over Christmas before the competition, even with young babies.”

On the question of diversity and more women adopting STEM, Sophie said things are changing at school level, even though biology and chemistry are still more female-dominated subjects.

“There is definitely a level playing field and we don’t see a gender imbalance of any sort. Women are so confident in anything they do now it doesn’t matter.

“We have the confidence in ourselves. It doesn’t matter to us; our projects are as good, if not better.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years