Kathriona Devereux: Lamborghinis, $5bn empires... awards such a success story

Kathriona Devereux has a long-standing fondness for the Young Scientist. In her weekly column she reflects on winners of the competition over the years
Kathriona Devereux: Lamborghinis, $5bn empires... awards such a success story
The winners of the 56th BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) were Alan O'Sullivan and Cormac Harris, both aged 16, fourth year students from Colaiste Choilm, Cork, for a project entitled “A statistical investigation into the prevalence of gender stereotyping in 5-7 year olds and the development of an initiative to combat gender bias”. Picture: Chris Bellew / Fennell Photography 2020

WATCHING Alan O’Sullivan and a gobsmacked Cormac Harris make that life-changing walk through the cheering audience of the RDS to collect the trophy for the BT Young Scientist of the Year 2020 put a big smile on my face.

The students from Coláiste Choilm in Ballincolling join an illustrious list of past winners and will look back at January, 2020, as a big milestone in their lives.

I have a long-standing fondness for the Young Scientist exhibition. I filmed at it on numerous occasions, lapping up the enthusiasm of the students earnestly explaining their projects, and I hosted the 2005 awards ceremony when a fresh-faced 16-year-old Limerick student Patrick Collison won for his project on a new computer programming language.

He has gone on to build a $5 billion online payments company called Stripe in the intervening years. Which makes me wonder what have I being doing with my time!

Cormac and Alan join a special group of people, many of whom have gone on to do great things in the fields of science, technology, medicine, engineering, education and business.

The first winner, John Monahan, won for his project that recreated the human digestive system.

I interviewed John at his home near San Francisco for a documentary marking the 40th anniversary of the Young Scientist Exhibition. He said that winning the Young Scientist award gave him great self-confidence to pursue his interest and obvious talent in science.

He founded and sold several multi-million dollar biotechnology companies. We filmed him leaning against his very fancy yellow Lamborghini sports car (a car you need a lot of self-confidence to drive!) and his successful trajectory from winning the inaugural competition in 1965 to Silicon Valley entrepreneur was evident.

Eleven — almost 20% of the Young Scientist winners — have come from Cork and I have had the pleasure of interviewing many of them. They are a fascinating bunch with an eclectic range of winning projects.

Jervis Good won in 1979 for his study of earwigs. Sarah Flannery, the cryptographer from Blarney, became a worldwide news story when she won in 1999.

Kinsale student Aisling Judge won for her project on a food spoilage indicator in 2006, followed in 2009 by John D. O’Callaghan and Liam McCarthy, also from Kinsale Community School, for their project that developed a simple way to assess infection in cow’s milk.

In 2010, Richard O’Shea brought the trophy back to Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal in Blarney for his biomass-fired cooking stove and now Cormac Harris and Alan O’Sullivan have followed in the steps of fellow Coláiste Choilm student Simon Meehan, who won in 2018 for his study on natural antibiotics in local plants.

There is clearly a culture of science in Kinsale Community School, Scoil Mhuire Gan Small and Coláiste Choilm, who have been sending entrants to the Young Scientist exhibition with great success for years.

Coming up with an original idea, pursuing and exploring it for months and presenting it in a coherent way to judges is such a valuable exercise beyond studying the curriculum subjects.

It establishes a norm of scientific discovery, builds self-confidence and exposes students to lots of like-minded people. It is great to see so many female entrants to the competition and in the cohort of Cork winners.

Unfortunately, in the wider world, women are seriously under-represented in the world of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). According to the CSO, just 25% of the STEM workforce in Ireland are female.

This matters because technology, engineering and science are shaping and building our future and influencing all aspects of life.

If women are not represented on the design teams determining our future, then the future is going to be created through a narrower perspective of the world.

Exploring gender bias was the motivation of Cormac Harris and Alan O’Sullivan’s winning Young Scientist project and they got 376 five to seven year olds to complete tasks (a medal worthy feat in itself!) exploring gender stereotypes.

Their extensive study showed that young children display gender stereotypes.

One striking finding was that 96% of boys drew a male engineer, while just over 50% of girls drew a female engineer.

The United Nations has called gender inequality the ‘Unfinished Business of Our Time’ and a critical component of achieving the sustainable development goals.

Gender equality is the goal and also the solution to solving lots of the world’s intractable problems.

‘Diversity’ and ‘Inclusion’ have become corporate buzzwords because industry recognises that a concerted effort is needed to create an equal corporate culture, and is motivated to build a diverse and inclusive workforce because, ultimately, it is good for the bottom line.

Nationally, there are lots of initiatives to encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers such as SmartFutures.ie, iWish, and Girls Rock STEM, and research shows parents and teachers play a critical role in determining girls’ career choices, as does the visibility of female role models.

But we all need to work on establishing a new norm of women working in STEM being as natural as women working in medicine or women working in education.

As part of their winning project, Harris and O’Sullivan developed resources for primary school teachers to combat gender stereotyping.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful for those resources to be developed and distributed nationally, or become part of a wider awareness campaign so that as a society we can nip the problem of unconscious gender bias in the bud?

Kathriona Devereux is a Cork science communicator and broadcaster and co-presents RTÉ’s science series 10 Things To Know About.

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