Three Irish Kids are Changing How We View Scientific Breakthroughs

The winning project from this year’s Google Science Fair could help combat famine around the world.

When kids win a science fair, it’s usually cause for local pride and platitudes about encouraging the scientists of the future. But last month, media outlets around the world lit up over the victory of three 16-year-old Irish girls, Sophie Healy-Thow, Émer Hickey, and Clara Judge of the small town of Kinsale, at the 2014 Google Science Fair.

Google’s competition, active since 2011 and co-sponsored by National Geographic, Scientific American, Virgin Galactic, and (for some reason) LEGO, is a massive and selective event, weeding out a handful of finalists between the ages of 13 and 18 from over 5,000 entries representing 90 countries. The prizes are lavish—the girls will receive a 10-day all-expenses-paid trip to the Galapagos Islands, $50,000 scholarships, Scientific American archive access for their school, potential astronaut training at Virgin Galactic’s Mojave Desert Spaceport, and a personalized LEGO set.

The entry that won this year’s contest was no ordinary science fair baking soda volcano, or even a potato-powered light. Titled “Combating the Global Food Crisis,” the girls’ project was an experiment in mixing nitrogen-fixing bacteria and crops that don’t intermingle naturally to increase yields. Farmers have long understood the relationship between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and crop yields, and these interactions are a cornerstone of crop rotation. The girls’ findings, which revealed new insights into bacteria’s effects on reducing seed germination times, could reap immediate returns for growers, and are being heralded as an important agricultural breakthrough.

Nitrogen cycle courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

While many young people who make the news as scientific pioneers just stumbled upon their discoveries by mistake, the Irish trio’s experiment, slowly grown over three years out of a love of gardening, natural curiosity, and methodical tests on more than13,000 seeds, is a prime example of the rigor and dedication apparent in successful young scientists. And the girls’ discovery is already demonstrating real-world value—reportedly, a company has already submitted a patent with the Irish Agricultural and Food Development Authority to apply the fair winners’ research to industrial brewing processes.

The girls appear to be part of something much greater as well. The Kinsale Community School they attend has produced a host of other international science fair winners and, in a rising tide of scientific achievement on the island, Ireland has furnished 15 of the past 25 European Union Young Scientist champions.

At this year’s Google fair, a host of other entrants from around the globe presented other interesting projects with real world potential, from new computer models for identifying anti-viral medications to bioplastics made of bananas to a flashlight powered by body heat. Way beyond the dioramas and poster board most people picture when they think of science fairs, these young students are actually making contributions on par with many veteran researchers, challenging perceptions of what scientific achievement looks like.