Young women scientists stir inspiration via X-rays, muons and earthquakes at BT exhibition

10 Jan 2014

Clodagh Hunt-Sheridan and Kate Culligan from Dominican College, Dublin, with their project 'A Research Study into the X-ray Properties of Black Hole Binary Stars'. Photo by Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is in full swing at the RDS in Dublin. Claire O’Connell talks to some young scientists about binary stars, muons and earthquake-proof buildings.

If you go down to the RDS today, you’re sure to find it’s abuzz with excitement. The 50th annual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) is in full swing, with some 550 projects on display. More than 120 prizes are up for grabs, the big one being the overall BT Young Scientist & Technologist(s) of the Year award, which comes with €5,000 and a chance to represent Ireland at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists. So what have some of the students being working hard on for the last several months to prepare for the showcase?

Starring X-rays

For their project, Kate Culligan and Clodagh Hunt-Sheridan, both in fifth year at Dominican College in Dublin, set their sights on the stars. Binary stars, to be exact.

Their study looks at the X-ray properties of closely paired black hole binary stars, explains Culligan. “It’s about the characteristics of these binary systems and how matter is transferred from an orbiting star to a black hole,” she says.

“We collected data from the International Space Development Conferences Satellites, particularly RXTE PCA, then we had to analyse and compare this data using both our own minds and advanced computer programmes. Our results are in the form of multiple light curve spectra.”

The students were inspired to come up with the idea for their project from watching physics documentaries, visiting Dunsink Observatory, attending a lecture at Dublin City University, and reading up on the topic, according to Culligan.

They were surprised at how much background work was needed to get up to speed. “We had to read so many research papers, go to seminars and attend lectures just to have enough knowledge to go forward with our project,” says Culligan. “We also had to learn a lot about computational physics and get software and teach ourselves to use it in order to analyse our data correctly.”

Still, the hard work has been paying off, she adds: “We can’t thank everyone who helped us enough, and our [young scientist] experience has been a brilliant one.”

Roise and Catherine

Róise McGagh and Catherine Cleary from Magh Éne College in Bundoran, Co Donegal, with their project ‘An Investigation Into Cloud Chambers and How They Work’. Photo by Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Cloud chamber

Two students from Magh Éne College in Bundoran, Co Donegal, decided that particle physics was the way forward for their project, and they used a ‘cloud chamber’ to track an elementary particle called a muon.

“Cloud chambers are used to detect certain types of particles as they pass through the atmosphere, using ethanol alcohol and dry ice,” explains transition-year student Catherine Cleary.

She and Róise McGagh, also in transition year, built a cloud chamber and carried out three experiments. “Our first attempt was unsuccessful but we saw unknown particles on attempt two and the muons we were looking for on attempt three,” says Cleary.

It’s not the first time the two students have gone on the hunt for muons – they carried out a similar project for SciFest in 2012 and won a PharmaChemical Ireland Award for their work.

“This year (for the BTYSTE) we had had a better building method and as a result we had some interesting finds,” says McGagh. “We videoed the second experiment while we were out of the room for a minute and the camera recorded activity in the chamber that seemed like a different kind of particle altogether!”

Lucy and project at BT Young Scientist

Lucy Nyland from St Joseph’s Secondary School in Castlebar, Co Mayo, with her project ‘The Tetrahedron Effect’. Photo by Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Earthquake-resistant design

Meanwhile, Lucy Nyland’s project tackled how design could help protect in the event of an earthquake.

“I set out to investigate whether a building would be more earthquake resistant if it was based on the structure of a tetrahedron rather than a more traditional oblong structure,” explains Nyland, who is a fifth-year student in St Joseph’s Secondary School in Castlebar, Co Mayo.

She chose the tetrahedron for several reasons. “A tetrahedron is a four-sided shape, and it has the unique property of remaining in the same position no matter which way you turn it – each ‘leg’ is positioned at exactly 109.5˚ to each of the others. The weight distribution and slightly pyramidal shape makes for a stable structure, so I thought it might be more likely to survive an earthquake.”

Nyland put her hunch through its paces and built a prototype of both a tetrahedral building and an oblong building, then she tested them on a drill-powered shake table to see which one would last the longest. “Thankfully the tetrahedral one took the force of the ‘mini-earthquake’ better, thus proving my hypothesis correct,” she says.

Nyland has long had an interest in science and related subjects and believes that science is a likely career choice for her. And she reckons the BTYSTE will encourage others to take an interest in real-life applications of science and engineering, too: “I would recommend all students to enter, as you never know what you might discover, both about yourself and science!”

Day out

As well as the student projects, this year’s BTYSTE is hosting plenty else, including interactive stands, live shows and coding club CoderDojo, plus a visit from former astronaut Chris Hadfield tomorrow, 11 January, to sign copies of his new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

Tickets are available at the door, costing €6 for students, €12 for adults and €25 for a family pass. For more information, go to the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition website, Facebook page or Twitter account, or call 1800 924 362 from the Republic of Ireland, or 0800 917 1297 from Northern Ireland.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

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