Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow are three 16-year-olds from Ireland whose research on diazotroph bacteria and its potential to combat the global food crisis won them the top prize in the 2014 Google Science Fair!
Ciara, Émer and Sophie spoke with us all about their project, why science is so important and more in a recent interview!
The three girls met at school, where they are all in the same grade together, and shared a science class.
“What really brought us together, though, was our national science competition, The BT Young Scientist,” they said. “We all entered for a number of years and we found that we all shared a common interest in science, and so it was inevitable that we would become very good friends because of this!”
Ciara became interested in science very early in her life.
“When I was only five years old, I visited our national science fair, the BT Young Scientist, where my brother was a competitor,” Ciara said. “I remember visiting all the different stands, and marvelling at one particular project which really intrigued me on the memory span of a goldfish. I am incredibly interested in animals, and I remember spending countless hours at the stand, marvelling at the fact that this, something I was interested in, could be science!”
As Ciara grew older, her family encouraged her love for science.
“[They] would always encourage me to question the world around me and realise that science is everywhere to be found,” she said.
From a young age, Ciara always volunteered to participate in science fairs. She went above and beyond what was expected of her in order to test her limits and discover the difference she could make.
“It’s just amazing to think that through science, I could change the world!” she said.
Émer’s love for science sprouted a bit later.
“My interest in science developed when I started studying science in secondary school when I was 13,” Emer said.
Before that experience, Émer had had very little exposure to the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields.
“What first drew me to STEM fields was when we studied microbiology, it amazed me that there are so many microorganisms living around us that we couldn’t even see!” she said.
Over time, Émer maintained her love for the field because it continued to fascinate her, and because her science teachers were so dedicated to their discipline as well as their students. She also enjoyed the intellectual challenges of science fairs.
“Science competitions such as Google Science Fair and our national competition, BT Young Scientist, have really pushed me to stick with science,” she said.
Sophie also took some time to develop a love for science.
“I wasn’t very interested in science at all in school,” Sophie said. “I thought it was just a text book subject.”
Things changed when she discovered that science was so relevant in our lives.
“My eyes opened up to science when I entered a project with two friends into our national science competition when I was thirteen,” she said. “Being at this exhibition made me realise that science is all around us in our everyday lives and has so many practical applications.”
Once Sophie entered the world of science, she never turned back.
“Science is the way forward, and I can see evidence of this every day through new technology and projects that are being conducted by scientists,” she said. “It is great to know that through our project we can hopefully make big changes for peoples lives in the developing world.”
After sharing experiences, the three friends realized they made up a group of hard-working, science-loving individuals, and decided to band together on a project that could make a difference.
“We found we all had a common concern about the ever growing food security problems,” they said.
The trio got to work on finding a solution toward food security. After a lot of research, they settled on a project idea.
“For our project, we used a bacteria called Rhizobium, which resides naturally in the soil,” they explained. “The job of this bacteria is to help plants such as peas and beans (legumes) grow by changing nitrogen in the air into nutrients to assist the plant’s growth. This is called nitrogen fixation.”
Nitrogen fixation is a process usually associated with legumes, but Ciara, Émer and Sophie wanted to try to use Rhizobium in the growth of barley and oats.
Very little research had been done before on diazotroph bacteria’s effect on the germination stage of plant growth.
“We were interested to see if treating seeds with bacteria would make any difference to germination time,” they said. “When we found the positive impact the bacteria had on germination, we also decided to investigate it’s effects on growth, where we found some incredible results!”
As hypothesized, they saw some major changes in germination times and plant yields.
“When we exposed the barley and oat seeds to this bacteria, we found we could reduce the germination time of the seeds by 50%,”they said. “When we grew the crops, we found a 74% increase in dry mass yield, which potentially means more food!”
This finding thrilled the three young scientists.
“Our project could easily aid the food security crisis which really excites us,” they said.
This project took first place in the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.
“Taking first place in our national competition was absolutely amazing!” they said. “We were so surprised and shocked, and for all of us it was like a dream come true.”
The big win gave the girls the chance to meet incredible scientists from various fields, and to represent Ireland in the European Contest for Young Scientists, or EUCYS.
“EUCYS was a very daunting experience as many of the contestants were already in college!” they said.
They traveled to Prague for the competition. Yet again, they were awarded first place.
“We were speechless and it was so great to have our hard work recognized!” they said.
When the opportunity to enter the 2014 Google Science Fair arose, the girls were quick to enter. They continued the research they began in February of 2012 for the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, which is still an ongoing process.
“We are still working on our project as we speak, with a large scale field trial experiment running right now in Ireland!” they said.
Putting together the research for the Google Science Fair was quite a laborious process. In all, the girls have analyzed more than 9500 seed samples and recorded more than 120,000 manual measurements.
“There were only three of us in the team, so 9500 samples was quite a substantial amount to examine!” they said. “During the height of the summer last year, we actually had to inspect 2000 seeds every 6 hours, which meant getting up at midnight and 6 o clock in the morning to take readings which could take up to 2 hours!”
To do this research, the team created a makeshift lab out of a spare bedroom in Ciara’s home.
“The work could be really difficult at times, but support from our families and friends really helped us through,” they said. “Looking back on it, the work was really worth it in the end!”
The study concluded that their process could result in a 40 percent increase in speed of germination as well as a 74 percent increase in dry mass yield.
“This has significant potential to have impact all over the world, particularly in the developing world, where it can be used as a partial solution to the food crisis by improving seed survival at germination and increasing yields,” they said.
It can also have a major influence on food production in developed countries.
“The use of this bacteria may even reduce the need for overuse of harmful fertilisers, which will be substantially beneficial to the environment,” they said. “There are also some possible industrial applications for our findings, in the distillery business. We are really passionate about getting this bacteria into commercial use, simply because it is completely natural and can make such a huge impact to everyone!”
Ciara, Émer and Sophie hope their work can also be influential in inspiring other girls to become more involved in the STEM fields.
“It is incredibly important for females to be involved in all aspects of STEM, and there is an obvious gender imbalance particularly in certain types of engineering and computer sciences, more so than medicine or biology for instance,” they said. “We personally think that this divide really stems from a very young age, even when you think of the toys you would buy for young children: the stereotypical toy for a boy is something like LEGO or K’Nex, whilst for a girl it is a Barbie.”
The three believe that this fixing this imbalance rests in the hands of parents and teachers who influence girls’ interest from infancy.
“Making changes to how we treat children from a young age, ie: encouraging an interest in STEM regardless of gender, will in our opinion be instrumental in breaking down gender barriers in all aspects of STEM,” they said.
For even more on Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow’s winning Google Science Fair project, view their entry here! You can also view other amazing Google Science Fair entries on their website here!