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Meet the award-winning Irish teens who could help solve world hunger

The trio scooped the grand prize at the recent Google Science Fair.

IMG_4487 The three teens pictured right after their big win Source: Peter Hickey

THEY’RE AGED 16, 16, and 17 – and they might just have discovered a way to help solve global hunger.

Emer Hickey, Ciara Judge and Sophie Healy-Thow are all students from Kinsale Community School in Co Cork, and not only did they come out on top in the 15-16 year-old category at the recent Google Science Fair, but they won the Grand Prize.

That was their third major success – they also won the BT Young Scientist Award in 2013, and the EU contest for young scientists.

Here’s more on their project, which is about bacteria and how it can help cereal crops to grow:

Source: Google Science Fair/YouTube

Speaking from San Francisco after their win, Emer Hickey said the trio were really surprised with their massive success.

“We didn’t really expect it – especially as all the other projects were so good,” she recalled. The competition was organised over the period of three days, so all the competitors got to know each other, and their projects, really well.

“We weren’t that nervous because we felt like we didn’t have a chance,” laughed Hickey. “We thought: ‘We’ll make the most of it and have fun’. It wasn’t really a competitive setting, it was really friendly. There weren’t nerves or tension.”

Over the three days, they visited Google’s headquarters in San Francisco, took part in a live Google Hangout, got to try the self-driving cars there, met the judges, and showed off their projects to local school children.

The judges – in true Google style – were very laidback, said Hickey. They had to present their project to them at a panel, and the teens expected the questions afterwards to be “something like on Dragons’ Den”. But instead, they were “chilled”.

“It was real Google style,” said Hickey.

IMG_4452 All of the participants Source: Peter Hickey

The awards ceremony took place at a huge theatre, and by then a little nervousness had crept in. There was a big build up, said Hickey. “I couldn’t sit still – I was really nervous, I really didn’t think we were going to get anything. When they called out our names I was so surprised. I was so happy I ran up.”

Once the trio had won the award for their age category, they had to wait on stage for the overall winner to be announced. They called out “the Grand Prize winner is” and not “winners are”, so for a split-second the teens presumed it wasn’t them.

But it was.

Shocked and delighted, they were the overall Google Science Fair winners for 2014.

Since then, they’ve been on a rollercoaster ride of media appearances, and trying to enjoy their stay in San Francisco.

“It’s been quite busy and there’s been lots of messages from home,” said Hickey.

They’re hoping the win will lead to collaborations with other scientists, universities or scientific organisations.

IMG_4548 The teens on TV after their win Source: Peter Hickey

They go into sixth year next year, but even though they will be busy with school this year, they’ll still be working on their project, which is at the field testing stage.

“It feels amazing, especially because scientists from really high levels, they’re actually recognising your work,” said Hickey of the awards. “The judges were of a really high educational standard.”

They’ve had to contend with some internet commenters mistaking their project for one on genetically modifying seeds – which it most certainly is not. “We’re using a naturally occurring bacteria that’s found in the soil,” pointed out Hickey.

They’ve discovered that when they apply this bacteria to barley and oat seeds, it makes them more productive, and increases food yields. This could bode well for countries that need more crops with which to feed people.

They’re hoping to test this bacteria on more crops, after they get settled back into school.

Future careers

IMG_4439

So, has the success of their project inspired them all to go down the science route?

Hickey says yes – but she realises there are many different avenues she could take. After doing work experience in labs, she realised: “I like being more with people rather than on my own and working in a lab”.

This has edged her more towards science communications or science teaching. “I’d love to combine my love of science with my love for talking to people,” she said. “That’s what the project has done for me.” She’d even love to organise science events.

“Last summer they didn’t have a summer – they worked constantly on this thing.”

Her dad, Peter, is hugely proud of his daughter and her two co-scientists.

“The big thing for me is it’s great to see hard work and diligence pay off,” he said. “To get this thing to where it is, they basically have spent two-and-a-half to three years putting in the hours. Last summer they didn’t have a summer – they worked constantly on this thing. It’s great to see something like this is recognised.”

He said the trio are “great role models for any teenager thinking about going into science”.

He also praised Google for making the Science Fair so enjoyable and without a constant emphasis on competition. “We all made some great friends. Everybody wished each other to win. There was no bad feeling. On the night, it didn’t really matter who won.”

He described the girls as normal teenagers: “The girls worked on their own – that’s what all of them are: all rounders. Emer is into music, drama, girl guides. She’s just a normal teenager who does incredible work on the side. That’s multi-tasking.”

Read: Irish schoolgirls take home grand prize at Google Science Fair>

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