Monday, 16 January 2017

BT Young Scientist Exhibition 2017: Autism, Antibiotics & Automatons

Hey guys! In what has become a 5-year tradition, I visited the BTYSTE on Saturday to meet up with old friends and be inspired, and here I am with the low-down on all the projects and stands that jumped out at me. 

(First, though, a shoutout to my friend GrĂ¡inne, who traipsed around the RDS with me for six hours.)

My Mentees

This year, like last year, I mentored Young Scientist students in my school. Niamh has been my mentee since the 2014 Young Scientist, and it's been amazing to see how much she's learned and grown. This year, she competed in Senior Individual Biology, and she won her category! Her project was about the antimicrobial properties of tree bark, and she found some promising results. The other student from my school who did a project this year was Judith, who mathematically studied frieze patterns in the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. She won a display award and the Williams Lea Tag Special Award. As always, Ms. O' Regan deserves a shoutout for all her hard work in facilitating the projects.

BT Bootcamp

I met lots of people from BT Bootcamp -- one person who had a project, three people who had Entrepreneur/BT Alumni stands, and some more we bumped into around the hall. 

John's project was cool - he fed a deep neural network a corpus of 20,000 items to teach it to distinguish between offensive and harmless statements. I saw something similar in the Google Science fair a few years ago -- could be interesting to see if it's ever implemented on a large scale. 

I had a nice chat with the guys from, who came in to give us a talk at BT Bootcamp two years ago, and saw plenty of other familiar faces too. 

Top Wall

I joined the other 50,000 people contributing to the big winners' immense tiredness by checking out the projects that won the top prizes, and found a couple of interesting projects. 

I talked to Cormac Larkin, who won his category, the Intel award for overall best Physics/Chemistry/Maths project and Individual Runner-Up, because we'd been talking on Twitter the night before. He found massive stars in the Magellanic cloud using a method that fell out of use because it was useless for finding parameters of stars, but he said it was fine because he only wanted to identify the stars. He used data mining to cut out white dwarfs and found good candidates 

Shane Curran, the overall winner, had an interesting project using post-quantum cryptography, but unfortunately he wasn't around his stand when I checked so I didn't really get to understand it. Fun fact though: he came and spoke to us at Drogheda Young Innovators two years ago, after he'd won overall runner-up with 

I was fond of a project called Micontact, which aimed to make learning how to make eye contact more fun for autistic people. I was getting a bit annoyed when I heard mentions of Applied Behavioural Analysis and thought it might be forcing autistic people to make eye contact, but then I learned that the girl who did it is actually autistic herself and we had a really cool chat about how people think autistic people are utterly incapable and how we're motivated to prove that wrong. It was great to see some autistic self-representation on the winners' wall. 

Finally, I talked to the guys who won the Analog Devices award for Best Technology Project (mainly because I'm friends with the brother of one of the students). They used Lego and 3D printing to make a set of legs that walk in a human-like way using antagonistic "muscles". 


I had an interesting chat with some guys who won first in their category for an epidemiological model of how colds spread in schools. I'd seen something similar with Claire Gregg's project on agent-based modelling of the spread of Ebola, which won her a spot as a regional finalist in the Google Science fair and more. I like epidemiology and they were cool guys.

I was delighted to find a project on antibiotic resistance and the public's knowledge of it, since educating people on antibiotic resistance is a big thing for me.

It definitely felt like there was something different in BTYSTE this year -- it might've been having more years of experience and seeing what gets repeated (even aside from the old reliables of farming and social media), or being further away from my time there. There was certainly a shift from university-based projects to more home-grown ones. This had upsides and downsides, but I do believe that the best projects are done on topics that the researchers can manage and cover, experimentally design and statistically analyse solidly.

So that's it over for another year. In the next few weeks, next year's winning projects will probably start being planned, and this incredible celebration of Irish teenage ingenuity will go all over again. The BTYSTE isn't perfect, but I think it's wonderful for two main reasons (a) we see how motivated and talented Irish students are to discover in their own free time (b) all the theatrics and the way Irish media descends on the Exhibition demonstrate that Ireland cares about science and the hard work of our teenagers.

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