THE BLOG
10/10/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Searching For Smart: My Stroll with the 2014 Google Science Fair Winners

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(From Left to Right; Sophie, Ciara, Emer)

Apart from searching for keywords on the web, every year Google embarks on a search for smart teens around the world globe with creative solutions to problems in our world today.

Supported by LEGO, National Geographic, Scientific American, and Virgin Atlantic, this year's Science Fair drew hundreds of entries from around the world, and out of those entries 15 finalists emerged. The finalists won different awards in their different age categories, but there was a grand prize. Yes, the big one, and this year's grand prize went to a team of 3 Irish girls; Ciara Judge, Sophie Healy-Thow, and Emer Hickey.

I was lucky to catch up with these three smart and beautiful girls for a stroll. It was the first time I ever attempted strolling with three guests simultaneously (Thanks to Sharon, from Google, for giving the push), and the girls and I had so much in course of this stroll. Happy International Day of the Girl Child to every young lady out there, this stroll is dedicated to you.

Ebenezar: Hi girls, thank you for making out time to hang out with me.

Ciara: No problem! We're happy to do so!

Ebenezar: Let me also use this time to formally congratulate you on winning the 2014 Google Science Fair. You guys did an awesome job; I must confess.

Ciara, Emer, Sophie: Thank you!

Ebenezar: You're welcome. I'll love to really know what inspired your individual interests in science because, it's not every day you see girls at the forefront of science and scientific research. So how did it start?

Ciara: For myself, my interest at science was sparked at a very young age. I went for the Irish national science fair to visit my brother, who was a competitor. I remember visiting all the different exhibition stands and projects- I was only about 5 years old at the time, so it was a little overwhelming I'll admit. However, there was one particular project that enthralled me: Three girls had carried out tests on the memory of a goldfish. I have always been incredibly interested in animals, so the goldfish in their display acted like a magnet to their stand for me, and I spent hours just standing there, looking at the goldfish swimming in circles around its bowl. That was the defining moment for me, when I realised that science could apply to anything I was interested in, in this case animals. From then on I was hooked on science, and I still am!

Ebenezar: Really cool. Emer?

Emer: I really began to love science when I went into secondary school, so I was 13 at the time. My interest really sparked when we started learning all about microbiology. I was fascinated by the fact there are so many living things out there, which before I had been unaware of. After this, I decided to enter our national science competition called BT Young Scientist. While working on my project, I realised there was a lot more to science than I initially thought and at the exhibition I made loads of friends, who all had a common interest in science. Needless to say, today I am still meeting loads of people who also love science - which makes for great discussions.

Ebenezar: It sure does, that's cool too. What about Sophie?

Sophie: My interest in science really began with project work in secondary school when I was 13 years old. Up until then I had very little interest and saw it as just another classroom subject. I entered our national competition with a team the first year and by myself the second year and this developed my interest further. By conducting my own experiments and seeing everyone else's projects at the exhibition, I realised that science is all around us, it isn't just a textbook subject. it's a universal language.

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Ebenezar: Very True. Do you think much more girls need to get interested in STEM subjects and why? Ciara?

Ciara: I think it is incredibly important for girls to be involved in STEM. There can be no doubt that there is a gender imbalance in STEM subjects, from my own experience, particularly in Technology and Engineering. I think a gender stereotype surrounds these subjects that they are 'just for boys.' This stereotype is demonstrated in the simplest of ways, even at home: If a father is fixing the car engine, is he going to call in his son or his daughter to help?

Ebenezar: Uhmm, I'm sure many dads will call their sons...

Ciara: Exactly! it's more than likely his son. By changing these subtle discriminations from a young age in a girls' life, I think we will be able to break down this gender stereotype and increase the numbers of girls in STEM subjects and jobs!! You can already see initiatives like Coderdojo and the European Union's 'Science: It's a girls thing' beginning to have an effect in encouraging young girls to get involved.

Ebenezar: Now, with your achievement, you guys have made gardening look so cool. I mean, my mum is a horticulturist and I've spent a reasonable amount of time doing some gardening, but I know many teens out there who don't like to get their hands dirty. What do you guys think about this? Should teens get more involved with gardening?

Ciara: It just so happens that our project was in the area of gardening, but I think it's more important for teens to look at the areas in which they have a personal interest and find science there. It is vitally important for young people to not only get involved in science, but to enjoy themselves with it. By working in an area they love, such as their hobbies, they can make their own discoveries but also have fun along the way!

Emer: I agree with Ciara - teens should have hobbies that interest them! In saying this though, I think it is really important to go outside and enjoy the outdoors, rather than spending way too much time online. (Although, I sometimes find myself doing this too)

Ebenezar: Haha, Yeap! Same here...

Emer: Sometimes, you just need time to relax on your own without being constantly connected with friends online!

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Sophie: Haha, I don't think it's about teens not liking to 'get their hands dirty', many teens I know would love to do some gardening! Of course it all comes down to personal interest. I think teens should focus on what interests them but also make sure that they are aware of the environment and the changing world around them. It's important to keep values in perspective and to not take the world we live in for such a short period of time for granted. Take care of it for the next generation.

Ebenezar: Very true Sophie, I agree with you on that one. Emer, I read something about GSF online, and it said the Eureka moment for all this happened when you were doing some gardening with your mum? Right? Can you tell us a bit more about how it happened?

Emer: So basically, one day my mum and I bought a pack of pea seeds. We never grew vegetables before, so we decided to try and grow them in a window box in our garden. After a while, we were picking some peas, when my mum accidentally pulled up the plant exposing the weeds (you can probably sense our lack of experience here)

Ebenezar, Ciara, Sophie: (General laughter)

Emer: On the roots, we saw these weird looking nodule things - and at first I thought it was a load of spider eggs or something!

Our next science class, we started learning about plant structure and I mentioned these nodules to my teacher. She briefly told the class about a bacterium called Rhizobium and the work that it does. This was where we first found out about the bacteria and that was a key factor in coming up with our idea! (We linked trying to use the bacteria in a different way with the food crisis in Geography!)

Ebenezar: Wow, totally creative, so how did Sophie and Ciara get involved?

Ciara: I actually got involved when Emer came to me in maths class and told me about this interesting bacterium which her science teacher had told her about called Rhizobium. We spent the whole class discussing what we could do with the bacterium, and by the end of that discussion we had decided we were going to work on Rhizobium for our science fair project that year. We probably should have been listening in maths class, but it worked out in the end!

Sophie: I got involved in the project during Ms. Reynolds science class in school when Emer asked her about growths on pea plants. Ms. Reynolds explained that the nodules were formed by bacteria called Rhizobium that naturally lives in the soil and the project was born there and then from this idea. As Ciara and I had worked together on a project it seemed a good idea for all three of us to do it together.

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(From Left to Right: Emer, Sophie, and Ciara)

Ebenezar: Nice connection, I really admire your team work. Can you just summarize the whole experience so far? From testing your hypothesis; flying to the US; to meeting and networking with other smart kids at the fair... Which moment stood out for each of you?

Ciara: It has been a three year project, so to pick one moment which stood out for me is really difficult! I guess I would have to go back to the very beginning of our journey, when we proved our hypothesis correct for the very first time. I'm actually really fond of the memory, because we were obviously pleased by our results when we statistically analysed them, but at that stage we had no idea of the implications of our findings or what lay ahead of us with this project!

Emer: There are so many moments coming to mind right now - but I would say a moment that really stood out for me was winning our national competition - The BT Young Scientist. This was a really important moment for me as I guess it was a time when I really gained confidence for the project and for myself. I feel like this award was a platform for us to go further with the project and enter European Union Contest for Young Scientists and Google Science Fair. As well as this, I guess you could say people began to take the "15 year old girls with a science project" a lot more seriously.

Ebenezar: Haha, Yeah right?

Sophie: So we've worked on the project for almost over three years now and during that time we had had our ups and downs. I'm not going to say it was easy - it was a lot of hard work but I knew that all the days, nights and Summer holidays spent conducting experiments and doing research would be worth it in the end. Knowing that our work may be able to help farmers all over the world is absolutely amazing. So it's definitely been worth it. Being recognized by Google Science Fair as the Grand Prize winner is such an honor and having a company like Google believe in our project and us is something I am extremely grateful for.

Ebenezar: Yeah, it's really great...

Sophie: Yeah. The whole experience at Google was so much fun! I loved speaking with the other finalists as they are all so inspiring and intelligent individuals. The moment that really stands out for me actually has nothing to do with science, projects or winning. It is a conversation I had with a Google employee about open-mindedness and the possibility of fulfilling goals and dreams while maintaining respect and courtesy towards others. This is a philosophy that I live my life by.

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Ebenezar: That's cool. How much support did you guys get from school? I heard one of your teachers helped and mentored you guys through the process?

Sophie: We got a huge amount of support from our school. It is really encouraging to know that everyone in school is totally behind us and believed in us. Yes, throughout all the stages of our project Mr. Shaun Holly was a big help, He came into school on weekends to help and advise - his unflappable attitude is always beneficial. He encourages kids to think of ideas and enter our national science competition and is great at building confidence even in the shyest individuals. Overall, the staff and students have been incredibly supportive of us and continue to be so.

Ebenezar: That's really a great school. I hope schools around the world can emulate that. Sophie and I were chatting on twitter recently and she was trying to explain how her twitter notification page has suddenly gone crazy. I'm sure Emer and Ciara are experiencing same?

Ciara: Yeah! My Facebook, twitter, and email accounts are completely buzzing!

Ebenezar: Haha, thought as much...

Ciara: It is actually so great to get congratulated by our peers, and also people we don't even know! Knowing that there are people behind you, supporting you and rooting for you really is a fantastic feeling.

Emer: Yeah all my social media was buzzing! It took me so long to reply to texts and facebook messages. It was so nice to see all the support and it really meant a lot to me.

Ebenezar: So how do you guys plan to manage all the attention at school, on social media, on TV, radio, and so on... you guys are like rock stars now you know? ☺

Ciara: Well, I don't think we are quite like rock stars yet. We have two really important years coming up for us in school right now, culminating in three weeks of state exams, so we are going to have to be careful that our schoolwork doesn't suffer in the midst of it all!

Ebenezar: Yeah that's right...

Ciara: We are lucky, however that our families and school are really supportive in ensuring that we can manage everything and we don't get too stressed!

Emer: Well, we are certainly not rock stars! As Ciara said we have exams coming up, which are pretty important, but for me I guess my down time is the project. Also I'm really interested in science communication so interviews and the sort are really interesting to me. I suppose I balance it all my spending time with my family and friends and just relaxing by watching a movie or something!

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Sophie: It goes without saying that we are not stars!

Ebenezar: Oh, Okay, all of you are saying it... Sorry, I agree (haha)

Sophie: (Hahah) On a practical level I think staying on top of our email accounts will be important for now anyway. Also I think it's about keeping everything in perspective - not getting caught up in the media attention or worrying about the small things. My friends and family have been amazing, I don't know what I would do without them,

Ebenezar: Okay, October 11th is International Day of the Girl Child, and I'm sure many girls out there consider three of you as role models right now, so can each of you say a few sentences to inspire girls around the world?

Ciara: I would say, to never be afraid, to break from the norm, and try something different. You can really stand out from the crowd by undertaking a project of any kind, and trying to make a difference, no matter how small. Never give up on your goal, because even if people try to convince you that you can't succeed, who says they're right? We were told by so many people at the outset of our project that it wouldn't work, but we decided to try anyway, and look where we are now! And if it looks like you've come upon a hurdle, there's more than one way to answer the same question, so just relax and try again!

Ebenezar: Emer?

Emer: So when I first entered our national science competition, I was 14 years old - I worked so hard on a project and surveyed over 1000 people - but I was awarded nothing!

Ebenezar: Whao!

Emer: I was pretty upset, but there and then I decided, I would try again and I would not give up! Imagine if I gave up, I wouldn't be here now right? My personal motto when things aren't going so well is to "Be a jellyfish". I suppose it's like, go with the flow of the situation, see where it takes you and just don't stress. Everything works out in the end!

Ebenezar: Be a jellyfish... Nice one. Sophie?

Sophie: I think you can really make a difference if you stay in the mindset that nothing is impossible. Gender should never prevent you from achieving everything and anything you set your mind to. There is a quote from the poet Syliva Plath that goes 'the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt'. So believe in yourself and never let anyone put you down,

Ebenezar: Awesome, I'm sure many people have been inspired by those words. Are there plans of making the bacteria you discovered commercially available to farmers around the world? Especially as your work is on solving the problem of global hunger.

Emer: First of all, we didn't actually discover the bacteria, it is already common knowledge. What we did was find a different application for this bacterium. The process of this application does not actually involve nitrogen fixation that rhizobium is associated with - but rather a different mechanism!

Obviously our end goal is to commercialize this and this involves us working more on the project. Obviously, we would love to solve the issue of global hunger, but we are fully aware that our project alone will not solve world hunger. We feel our project is a piece in a much larger puzzle which we are really excited to be a part of!

Ebenezar: Very well said. So how long will this team stick together? Is winning GSF a sign of a stronger future partnership between 3 of you, or everyone will soon go her way?

Ciara: It really has been great working as a team on this project because we each bring unique strengths and qualities to the table. The growing season has just ended but I know we hope to resume work on this particular project next spring. We are united by a common interest in science, but as we have matured our specific interests have become more defined. It looks like we all hope to go into different areas of science, so in the long term we may not have the opportunity to work together in the future, but it will be great to meet up in a few years' time, and compare our various areas of study!

Sophie: In terms of the project I have no doubt that we will stick together and carry on our research as we are all very passionate about it. As we get older it is inevitable that we will each go our separate ways to follow different areas of interest. As we are still young who knows what direction life will take us?

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Ebenezar: Yeah, you're both right. Okay, one final question. Winning the GSF came with a cash prize of $50,000, and this will be shared among the 3 of you. I'll like to know how each of you plans to spend your portion of the money. Are we talking iPhone6 and new shoes here? (Haha) ☺

Ciara: Well I've actually beaten you to it, with the iPhone 6! (haha)

Ebenezar: (hahah)

Ciara: I was in dire need of a new phone, so it was my very first purchase! The rest of my money will probably go towards my college tuition. I was intending on buying a laptop, but I have a new chromebook courtesy of Google so now I don't have to.

Ebenezar: Wow, many thanks to Google for that one...

Emer: For now, I'm going to save my money!

Ebenezar: Oh boy, we'll surely need a big piggy bank for that one!

Emer: (Hahah) I hope to head over to New Zealand in the near future so it'll probably go towards that. I really love traveling!

Ebenezar: That's cool too. Sophie?

Sophie: I've put all money towards my education for now but I love to travel and experience different cultures. For the moment most of this has been within Europe but I plan to travel to other continents in the near future.

Ebenezar: I share in that dream too dear. Seriously girls, I wish we could just go on and on forever. I've had so much fun on this stroll. I'm so inspired that I'm beginning to think of an invention of my own (haha)

Ciara: Well get making it then! Why not!

Ebenezar: (Haha) let's pray I don't blow down my room or something...

Emer, Ciara, Sophie: (General laughter)

Ebenezar: I hope to catch up you guys sometime soon, thanks for coming on The Stroll.

Ciara: Thank you! It was great chatting with you!

Emer: Thank you! It was our pleasure

Sophie: Thank you for inviting us, It was an honour,
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You can follow the girls on twitter @SophieHealyThow, @EmerHick, and @CiaraFudgyJudgy

This interview was first published on THE STROLL
Photo Credit:Google Science Fair, Irish Examiner, Kinsale Community School, Fennel Photography, Silicon Republic