Pioneering Young Scientist winners skyrocket to success

8 Jan 2016

What happens when Young Scientists grow up? For many, successful careers in science and technology soon follow.

Since 1965, the Young Scientist exhibition has showcased the best and brightest young minds Ireland has to offer.

Ireland’s winners have enjoyed many firsts and a multitude of awards, as well as STEM careers that have taken them around the world.

As we eagerly await the crowning glory of the 2016 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), here are just 10 of these inspiring winners’ stories from the competition’s 52-year history.

1965: John Monahan

John Monahan won the first-ever Young Scientist competition in 1965 and went on to enjoy a stellar career as a biotech entrepreneur. The inaugural event took place in the Round Room of the Mansion House in Dublin and 230 schoolkids demonstrated their scientific prowess.

Monahan, from Co Kildare, picked up the top gong for his project, which was an explanation of the process of digestion in the human stomach. His display included flasks and tubing to show how the digestive system worked.

He went on to earn a degree in science at UCD before working in the emerging biotech sector in the US, where he eventually formed his own company. He earned a PhD in Canada and worked at Roche in New York before moving to San Francisco, California, where he established his own NASDAQ-listed company, Avigen, in the 1990s.

Now semi-retired, Monahan serves on the boards of a number of US and Irish-based biotech companies.

1969: Luke Drury

Luke Drury, formerly of Wesley College in Dublin, picked up the top prize for his project, which saw him build and use a spectro-photometer to examine complex ion formations in a transitional metal.

Winning the Young Scientist prize the same year humankind landed on the moon, Drury’s third-level education looked similarly skyward and he picked up a BSc in physics from Trinity College Dublin before going on to do a PhD in astrophysics at Cambridge University in the UK.

Nowadays, Drury is one of the senior astrophysicists at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), as well as the chair of the Astronomy Working Group for the European Space Agency (ESA).

More recently, he was also named chair of the EU-funded Centre of Excellence for Software, Training and Consultancy in Simulation and Modelling, otherwise known as E-CAM.

1983: Turan Mirza, William Murphy and Gareth Clarke

The first group project to win at the Young Scientist competition was in 1983 and it was entered by Turan Mirza, William Murphy and Gareth Clarke from Carrickfergus Grammar School on the topic of microcomputer-based robotics.

After winning the award, Mirza studied electrical engineering at the University of Ulster and then worked as a software engineer. He is now director of engineering at Advanced Sensors in Northern Ireland, which develops sensor equipment for the oil and gas industry.

Murphy studied computer science at the University of Ulster and enjoyed a career at BT before branching out as an IT consultant specialising in computer networking and IT applications.

Clarke went on to study for a technology degree at Queen’s University in Belfast. He became head of the technology department at Coleraine Academical Institution before moving to Canada where he teaches computing at Mount Slesse Middle School in British Columbia.

1989: Grace O’Connor and Sinead Finn

Grace O’Connor and Sinead Finn took part in the Young Scientist Exhibition back in 1989. The students from Ursuline Convent, Thurles, entered the competition during their Leaving Cert year with the project, A crop fractionation industry, which offered a method for breaking down grass into its component parts – protein, ethanol and methanol.

The aim was to use grass, which is obviously plentiful in Ireland, as a readily available source of fuel. As the process was driven by methanol – the leftover product of the fractionation – it was essentially a self-sustaining system of fuel production.

Having won the Young Scientist prize, the duo then went on to become the first-ever winners of the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) at the inaugural competition in Brussels later that year.

Given the climate predicament currently facing us, the crop fractionation project is as relevant as ever and, in fact, is still used in research around the world.

Finn now owns a management consultancy business in London, and O’Connor owns the O’Connors Pharmacy chain, operating in Co Meath.

1994: Jane Feehan

Jane Feehan won the Young Scientist competition in 1994 for her project The secret life of the calluna case-carrier, which examined the life of the calluna moth, an insect that feeds on calluna heather.

Feehan, of St Brendan’s Community School, Birr, initially undertook the project as a hobby of sorts, but the breadth of her research ensured her the top prize at the Irish exhibition and a trip to the EUCYS.

At the EUCYS, she was awarded first place and won herself a trip to the 1994 Nobel Prize ceremony.

Feehan went on to study biology at Oxford University and completed a PhD at Trinity College Dublin. As part of her PhD, she spent a year as an intern with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment.

Currently a natural resources specialist for the European Investment Bank, Feehan works on the Bank’s forestry, agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture projects.

1999: Sarah Flannery

In 1999, Cork student Sarah Flannery from Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál in Blarney started the last year of the 20th century with a bang, making headlines across the world for her winning encryption project.

Aged 16, Flannery developed the Cayley-Purser algorithm, based on the work of cryptographer Michael Purser with additional naming from mathematician Arthur Cayley. She also went on to pick up the top prize at the 11th EUCYS in Greece and represented the European Union at the international Nobel Prize ceremony in December 1999.

Soon after her global success, she co-wrote a book with her father in 2001 called In Code, talking about her experiences of making her algorithm and her love of maths and coding.

Later taking the name Sarah Barthelet, she worked as a director of analytics at the media advertising company RockYou, having previously served as a software engineer at Electronic Arts and a senior computer scientist at Tirnua. These days, according to her LinkedIn profile, she’s circumnavigating the world aboard a catamaran.

2000: Thomas Gernon

Taking on an exceptional idea of The Geography and Mathematics of the Earth’s Urban Centres’, Louth’s Thomas Gernon took the first award of this millennium. His project was successful enough to nab the Alumni Prize at the subsequent EU edition of the competition, too.

After studying geology in UCD, Gernon hopped across the Irish Sea to take up a PhD in volcanic eruption mechanisms of diamond-bearing rocks – ultimately becoming a volcanologist.

Now an Earth science lecturer at the University of Southampton, Gernon’s work has taken him to all corners of the globe to study geological environments, including exploratory work for mining companies.

2001: Peter Taylor, Shane Browne and Michael O’Toole

Winner of the 2001 edition – the first with headline sponsor BT – was Peter Taylor and his teammates Shane Browne and Michael O’Toole, who produced a maths project exploring all the different ways you could arrange polygons into circular patterns. “Quite abstract, a very pure maths project,” Taylor explained.

A theoretical physicist, Taylor’s journey took him and his team from the RDS to third spot in the overall EU Young Scientist competition in Norway that year. He studied mathematical sciences in UCD, moved on to Cambridge, came back for a PhD in Dublin, and became a lecturer in Trinity College.

Currently an ELEVATE/Marie Curie research Fellow at Cornell University, Taylor is also the brother of Irish boxing great Katie. “A certain point in my life I realised I wouldn’t be a better boxer than her, what other avenue could I take in life? Theoretical physics came second,” he said at the 2014 event.

As for his teammates, Browne is an executive scientific recruiter at HRM recruit while O’Toole is working in IT for ESB International.

2005: Patrick Collison

Probably the best-known person on this list, Patrick Collison won the competition in 2005 with a project that involved the creation of a programming language called Croma.

Aged 16 when he was victorious at BTYSTE, it didn’t take long for Collison to find success, with him and his younger brother John selling their first company, Auctomatic, to Canadian firm Live Media when they were just 19 and 17, respectively.

Patrick Collison

Stripe co-founder and 2005 Young Scientist winner Patrick Collison

That was just the beginning of the brothers’ journey in tech, though, with the pair moving to Silicon Valley and going on to found Stripe, an electronic payments company valued at $5bn, of which Patrick is the CEO.

Founded just five years ago, Stripe enables websites to easily accept credit and debit card payments and it has received investment from high-profile names, including Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.

Patrick and his brother John were named on the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2014 and, last October, were named the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award winners at a ceremony in Dublin.

Still just 27, and with Stripe aiming to become a 1,000-person company, it looks like there can only be more success on the horizon for this BTYSTE alumnus.

2013: Émer Hickey, Sophie Healy-Thow and Ciara Judge

Winners of BTYSTE in 2013, that award was just the beginning of an award-winning run for the three Kinsale Community School students.

They went on to win the first prize in biology EUCYS in Prague later that year, before winning the Grand Prize at the Google Science Fair in 2014 for their project, which investigated the use of diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop germination and growth aid.

Currently in their Leaving Cert year, the trio have had a lot of success since their BTYSTE win.

Judge and Hickey both spoke at Inspirefest 2015 (Judge via pre-recorded message), where they launched their company, Germinaid Innovations, which focuses on agriculture research.

They also both participated in Outbox Incubator in London this summer, with Judge also travelling to MIT in the US where she took part in MIT Launch Summer and launched a new barcode-scanning app called PurchaseMate with a team there. Judge is also speaking at TEDx Teen in London next week (16 January).

Healy-Thow, meanwhile, was invited to give a TEDx talk in the summer and was also selected as a global youth leader by the UN for her work in the fight against world hunger. She was also the only youth leader from Europe to attend a UN summit on sustainable development goals in New York recently.

2013 Young Scientist winners

Sophie Healy-Thow, Émer Hickey and Ciara Judge at Google in Dublin in 2014

Main image of kid with jet pack via Shutterstock