Biology project steals the show at this year’s BT Young Scientist

12 Jan 2018

From left: Shay Walsh, managing director at BT Ireland; BTYSTE 2018 winner Simon Meehan from Coláiste Choilm, Co Cork; and Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, TD. Image: Connor McKenna

Simon Meehan from Coláiste Choilm in Co Cork has nabbed the coveted overall prize at BTYSTE 2018.

A joyous result for Simon Meehan from Coláiste Choilm in Co Cork, who has been awarded the perpetual trophy at this year’s BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), held as usual at Dublin’s RDS.

Meehan was surrounded by an ecstatic group of his peers from Coláiste Choilm, who raucously chanted his name and sang “We love Simon” behind him as he held the perpetual trophy.

The 15-year-old transition-year student took home the prize for his project in the biological and ecological sciences category, entitled ‘Investigation into the antimicrobial effects of both aerial and root parts of selected plants against Staphylococcus aureus’.

Staphylococcus aureus, also known as ‘golden staph’, is best known for its antibiotic-resistant strains – MRSA – which are prevalent in hospitals, prisons and nursing homes. Golden staph can also cause a number of other infections, such as sinusitis, skin infections such as abscesses, and food poisoning.

Meehan selected nine locally sourced plants such as asparagus, nettles and blackberries to test for the presence of chemicals that could potentially be used to control bacterial infection. His research demonstrated that the leaves of a blackberry plant contain a chemical that prevented the growth of different bacteria, and deeply impressed the 82-strong panel of judges.

BTYSTE judge John O’Halloran, who chairs the Biological and Ecological Sciences category, commented: “This is a really exciting project which explores the possibilities 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.”

BT announced some key changes to the grand prize for the event this year, increasing the cash prize from €5,000 to €7,500 and throwing in a trip to Bletchley Park, also known as the base of the World War II codebreakers who cracked the Enigma code.

Meehan will also go on to represent Ireland in the EU Young Scientist event, which will be held in Dublin in September 2018. The competition has not been held on our shores since 2004, and this year marks three decades since the event began.

The group award was presented to James Knoblauch, Harry Knoblauch and Oran O’Donoghue, all 16-year-old fifth-year students from St Brendan’s College in Killarney, Co Kerry. Their project, entitled ‘An investigation into conformity and how minorities influence it’, demonstrated how one person can influence the behaviour of others.

From left: Shay Walsh, managing director at BT Ireland; James Knoblauch, Oran O’Donoghue and Harry Knoblauch from St Brendan’s College, Killarney; and Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, TD. Image: Connor McKenna

This year marked the 54th BTYSTE and thousands of teachers, students and families have flocked to the RDS to view the 550 projects on offering.

A remarkable 60pc of the young people presenting at the RDS are female, the highest number of girls to qualify in the showcase’s history.

This year’s exhibition pulsed with a strong social consciousness, with topical issues such as HPV vaccines, fake news, social media use, micro-plastics and issues of gender emerging as common themes for projects.

Entrants also demonstrated a strong knowledge of cutting-edge technologies, utilising the likes of CRISPR-Cas9, machine learning and neural networks.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic