Meet the woman running the show at BT Young Scientist

12 Jan 2018

Mari Cahalane, head of BTYSTE. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

This year’s BTYSTE showcase has seen the highest number of girls qualifying in its history. Dr Claire O’Connell spoke to organiser Mari Cahalane.

Today’s the big day (12 January).

In just a few hours, we will find out the winners of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), and the more than 1,100 students who qualified for the showcase at the RDS this week will be on tenterhooks, wondering if their project has impressed the judges enough to garner an award. Teachers, parents and media too will all be focused intently, ready to spread the news.

Female participation

It’s a huge national platform, according to Mari Cahalane, head of BTYSTE. And, for the first time in the exhibition’s history of more than half a century, 60pc of the young people presenting at the RDS are girls.

“In the last decade, the trend has been that we have had more girls enter the BTYSTE, but this is the first year when we have seen the statistic of 60pc females qualifying for the RDS, which is brilliant,” she said. “We are seeing that girls are getting more involved across all the categories.”

Has that happened organically, or has there been encouragement? “A bit of both,” said Cahalane. “We are very conscious of gender balance and, in the last few years, we have been getting the profiles of past winners out there, and for girls we are so lucky with the role models that we have.”

‘It is all about the young people; they are core and central what to what we do’

Role models

Those role models include previous winners and entrants who have gone on to build on their BTYSTE success, such as Rhona Togher and Eimear O’Carroll, whose company Restored Hearing develops new technologies to help people with tinnitus; Annie and Kate Madden, whose horse-nutrition company FenuHealth is taking the equine world by storm; Edel Browne, who is developing technology to help people with Parkinson’s disease; and entrepreneurial advocates such as Ciara Judge.

Cahalane has been particularly impressed by students who develop innovations for issues they see in their own lives, such as Ciara-Beth Ni Ghríofa, a student with autism. She worked on Mi-Contact, an app to help children with autism maintain eye contact, and went on to win the BT Young Scientist Business Bootcamp, which encourages participants to develop their ideas further as sustainable businesses.

Organisation central

After she left school, Cahalane began studying computer science at Waterford Institute of Technology, but she soon found herself on a different road. She moved to the UK to work with BT as part of the secretariat and in public affairs, moving her way into marketing, event management and PR.

The Gorey native returned to Ireland in the late 1990s to work with Ocean and Esat, which then became BT Ireland. In 2001, Cahalane started volunteering with BTYSTE, and then became involved in its day-to-day running. Since 2009, she has headed up the event, which involves not only the participating students but also panels of judges, hundreds of volunteers from BT and media who camp in the RDS, and thousands of members of the public who visit the exhibition.

“It’s interesting having someone running one of the longest-running and biggest science fairs in the world who has no science background,” she said. “But the event is massive; there is so much going on, and what you need is an organised person.”

Springboard for young people

With the 2018 theme of ‘It Starts Here’, BTYSTE aims to give young people a springboard to take their interests further, according to Cahalane, who has seen the effects of taking part over the years.

“I have had parents write to me or ring in tears saying thank you for the opportunity, that I don’t know how much this means, the confidence it has given their son or daughter,” she said.

“And, while as a company BT has done a lot to innovate around the technology of the BTYSTE and we strive to be better each year, we have not changed the ethos that Dr Tony Scott and Rev Dr Tom Burke had more than 50 years ago when they came up with the idea.

“It is all about the young people; they are core and central what to what we do.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication