10 years on: Winning the Young Scientist award was the highlight of my life says Cork man

On January 15, 2010, Blarney teenager Richard O’Shea won the BT Young Scientist award — one of ten Corkonians to do so. He tells JOHN DOLAN about the success, the last ten years, and his goal to make a difference in the world of renewable energy
10 years on: Winning the Young Scientist award was the highlight of my life says Cork man
Richard O'Shea, a former pupil from Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal, Blarney, Cork, who won the BT Young Scientist Award back in 2010. Picture: Shane O'Neill, Fennell Photography.

Q: Richard, how did you go about winning the BT Young Scientist award in 2010?

A: My project for the BT Young Scientist Competition was a Low Emission Cooking Stove. I came up with the idea while experimenting with cooking stoves in my shed (yes, a common pastime I know).

The project looked at a number of different cooking stove designs. I built and tested several stoves throughout the project — each design tried to improve the shortcomings of the previous one.

A simple test I conducted was to compare the energy output of the stove by measuring the temperature rise of a given mass of water, to the energy content of the wood I used in the stove.

Most of the tests were conducted using simple lab equipment in my secondary school, Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál in Blarney.

Attending the BT Young Scientist competition was always something I looked forward to when in school. I always thoroughly enjoyed it — both the events organised at the exhibition and meeting like-minded students.

The vision of Dr Tony Scott to set up the competition and the work that the BT staff — all of whom are volunteers — and Mari Cahalane specifically put in to plan, organise, and run the exhibition cannot be praised enough.

I was not expecting to win the competition, there were a number of excellent projects that year. I was very surprised when my name was called out.

I was a bit taken aback by the media attention afterwards and shied away from it to a certain degree. Going on The Late Late Show was a bit of a blur, I think I met Brian May of Queen back stage, which was great.

Q: What has happened to you in the last ten years?

A: I finished my Leaving Cert in 2010 and was lucky enough to be offered a place on the Energy Engineering undergraduate course in UCC.

I really enjoyed my undergraduate years, Energy Engineering was a wide-ranging and very interesting course that dealt with the production, transmission, and use of energy. I feel like it gave me a great overview of such a broad and important topic.

I was lucky enough to be accepted on a work placement in MIT in the USA for my work placement in my third year, which was truly amazing.

I also worked at the Hydraulic & Maritime Research Centre at UCC, testing model scale ocean energy devices, and in the Environmental Research Institute, helping PhD students with research in the field of biogas and renewable gas production.

I have a lot of great memories from my undergraduate days, I met some excellent mentors, and most of all, I made some wonderful life-long friends.

I graduated from UCC in 2014 and started a PhD under the supervision of Professor Jerry D. Murphy and Professor Brian Ó’Gallachoir on the production of renewable gas in Ireland, funded by Ervia and SFI.

My research assessed how much renewable gas could be produced in Ireland from a range of materials, primarily using the process of anaerobic digestion.

The PhD was a job and a way of life, the research group was based in the Environmental Research Institute on the Lee Road, which became a home away from home.

Professor Murphy and Professor Ó’Gallachoir were excellent mentors, full of advice and help.

I published six academic papers as a first author, co-authored a few more, and was lucky enough to meet some incredibly talented people.

I was awarded my PhD in 2017 and graduated in 2018.

I worked with RPS in Cork as a Design Engineer after I finished my PhD. I really enjoyed the work and learned a huge amount from the excellent engineers there.

In 2019, I was lured back to UCC to work as a Post-Doctoral Researcher, again under the supervision of Professor Jerry D. Murphy, which is where I am now.

The current project focuses heavily on sustainability and renewable energy in industrial energy consumers. I have been back almost a year and thoroughly enjoy the work.

Q: What are your hopes and ambitions for the future. What kind of things do you and your colleagues hope to achieve in the vital areas in which you are studying?

A: Looking to the future, I’m not really sure where I’ll end up. I would like to think that it would still be in the areas of renewable energy and sustainability, which are very topical at the moment.

One of the key areas of the work that my colleagues and I focus on is the replacement of fossil fuels in heavy goods vehicles and in large industrial energy users by renewable gas.

I would be immensely satisfied to see a fleet of heavy goods vehicles powered by renewable gas, moving high quality Irish products from an industrial energy user (power by renewable gas) to consumers around the country and even beyond our shores.

Q: Tell us a little about your life, family, hobbies, etc.

A: I’m originally from Blarney, but moved into the city during my PhD.

My father, Michael, is a retired master mechanic and entrepreneur, I still ask him for advice and his opinion, which I value highly. My mother, Helen, was a general nurse, a midwife, and a tropical disease nurse.

Both my parents worked in Nigeria, which is where they met. My mother and father are both very active in the community, my father is involved in the GAA and Tidy Town Group, my mother is an active member of the ICA and cooks for the Meals on Wheels.

My younger brother, Anthony, is an excellent mechanical engineer who graduated top of his class in CIT and now works in the Irving oil refinery in Whitegate.

I still try to play hurling — successfully or not is a matter of opinion — with Blarney GAA, which I enjoy and is a great way of releasing stress.

I enjoy working with my hands and over the last few weeks, I made Christmas presents for friends and family — simple enough gifts, rocks engraved with Ogham and mounted on a small walnut wood base.

Q: Finally, how important was the annual BT Young Scientist award to you and your career personally, and how important is it to Ireland generally?

A: The BT Young Scientist was and is one of the highlights of my life to this day. I think that it is hugely important to Ireland that young students get the opportunity to explore the scientific method, investigate new areas, and expand their horizons.

We live on a small island on the west of Europe, our biggest asset is our people and our talent, and encouraging and developing that talent in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, technology, and social sciences is key to ensuring a prosperous, sustainable, and fair future for Ireland.

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