Three Irish students have won a global science research competition at the GoogleScience Fair 2014 in San Francisco. Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow from Kinsale Community School, Cork were named the grand prize winner in the 15 to 16-year-old age category for a project which examined the use of natural bacteria to increase crop output. They were inspired to try and help improve food production, particularly in third world countries, after learning about a famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011.
The basis of their project focuses on a naturally occurring bacteria in soil called Diazotroph. Their research showed that if Diazotroph is present, it accelerates the germination process of high-value crops such as barley and oats, potentially boosting output by up to 50 per cent. Using naturally occurring Rhizobium strains of the Diazotroph bacteria family, they carried out an extensive study of their impact on the germination rate and subsequent growth of the cereal crops wheat, oats and barley. Detailed statistical analysis of their results indicated that these bacterial strains accelerated crop germination by up to 50 per cent and increased barley yields by 74 per cent. Such a cereal crop performance improvement could significantly assist combating the growing global food poverty challenge and benefit the environment by reducing fertilizer use.
The Irish students are previous winners in the 2013 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition and have competed in the EU Contest for Young Scientists. They were among five global finalists for their age category selected from thousands of submissions by students in more than 90 countries.
Speaking on RTÉ radio, Emer (16) said they worked on the project for three years. “We did a lot of experimental work in Ciara’s house. First we took over the spare room, [AND]then expanded into the kitchen, sitting room, conservatory, and the garden.. We tested over 13,000 seeds. It was quite a lot of work but it has really been worth it,” she said.
Sophie (17) described the prizes the trio have won as “absolutely amazing”. “We get to go on an exhibition with National Geographic to the Galápagos Islands. We get $50,000 towards our project and a $25,000 scholarship. It’s absolutely insane.”
Another part of the girls’ prize will see them undertake astronaut training with Virgin Galactic.
“We’ll be trained as airforce civilians going on a trip to outer space. It is part of Richard Branson’s project to commercialise space travel. [WE ARE]really excited about that.… It’s not even about the prize, just getting recognition for all our hard work,” said 16-year-old Ciara.
Asked about their plans for the next few days, Emer said they were going to celebrate for the next few days but are “ looking forward to going home and meeting our friends, going back to school and in the long run we are definitely going to continue the project and try to commercialise it in whatever way we can. Then we can really begin to change the world.”