Sunday, November 08, 2015

Web Summit and why it was awesome.

Awesome is such an American word, so I cringe when I use it (so does Emer), but it’s the only way I can describe last week at Web Summit.

Now, I’m sure when Project Zilkr announced that it would be exhibiting at the summit it would have raised a few questions in people’s minds, ranging from ‘how in God’s name can you afford a booth at Web Summit’ to ‘aren’t you like, 12?’. So I think I should probably begin by explaining how we got there. It was a total gamble really. So I was sitting in the front room at the Outbox House in London, reviewing Zilkr’s marget seg which had just been emailed over from my compadre Campbell when I lost concentration and my eyes drifted to the Facebook window on my browser. “Okay, just 5 minutes,” I told myself, as I started scrolling, and then suddenly an advertisement for WebSummit popped up and I was transported back to this time last year, when I stood in the midst of the Alpha exhibitors and vowed to myself that I would be there next year with a startup of my own. And then I decided to play a guessing game.

I grabbed a notepad and wrote down all the possible email addresses for Paddy Cosgrave I could think of. ‘’ was a no brainer, it was his username that I had to brainstorm. Eventually I narrowed it down to the most likely four: ‘paddy,’ ‘paddycosgrave,’ ‘paddy.cosgrave’ and ‘cosgrave.’ So I sent an email to each, explaining who I was, what Zilkr does, and adding in a guilt trip at the end about doors in faces and such. Clicked send, closed my laptop, and went to grab a glass of milk. And promptly spilled milk all over the floor when, 15 minutes later, my phone beeped and an email entered my email from the man himself:

What a story! Congrats! Love getting emails like this, even at 12am while in Hong Kong with the team...”

And so on and forth, referring us to people on the media team etc who would work with us on Zilkr’s involvement in the summit.

So that’s how we came to last Tuesday evening arriving at the RDS fresh from flights from Austin, buses from Lucan and cars from Kinsale. I had the pleasure of speaking at the Schools Summit that evening on the Main Stage, which was a wonderful experience, especially when the young audience did 'Z's for Project Zilkr.

Wednesday was when the party started for real, as that was the day we were exhibiting. We had a fantastic time with all the other ‘Alphas,’ taking photos with our @projectzilkr sign, meeting many corporate influencers and pitching to Accenture (watch this space).

I was actually supposed to go back to Cork for school on Thursday, but after asking really nicely, my parents agreed to let me stay (provided I caught up on schoolwork of course). And aren’t I glad I did, as that morning we were interviewed by Sky News for Project Zilkr. Thursday was wonderfully chill, we got to hang out in the speaker’s lounge, catch up with Dublin based friends, see some of the interesting talks and recruit some mentors for Project Zilkr. I’m not gonna lie, I felt super cool flashing my Speaker wristband to the security guards outside the Spiegeltent whilst being followed by a volunteer holding an umbrella over my head (I think she thought I was someone important), before losing all pretence of maturity when I saw the free food in the Facebook lounge. I also think my lack of experience may have been given away when I made eye contact with Dan Brown while grabbing some free ice cream and subsequently melted to the ground in awe.

I wasn’t expecting to, but I did feel a little sad knowing that this was the last Websummit in Dublin for the time being. I feel like Irish culture is part of what really makes the Summit work, but I respect their decision to move to Portugal. I only hope that one day the Summit will return.

So that was my Web Summit and it was honestly so much fun. I’d like to thank Paddy for taking the time to read that email, and for taking young people seriously – it doesn’t happen enough unfortunately. So what I’d say to everyone is, don’t be afraid to send that DM, or make that phone call, because you never know where it may lead you. The worst anyone can say is no.

Wow, what was a light hearted blog post got a little deep there. So please enjoy this video of me skiing into a wall to lighten the mood.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

More about me than you ever, ever will want to know.

Roll up, roll up! Time to learn some useless facts about my life for the 'Liebster Award' that, let's face it, nobody actually wants to know. Cheers Harry for the nomination, because lets face it, as a Leaving Certificate student running two startups, I have loads of time on my hands. Well, lets begin, shall we?

How would you describe yourself using only 3 words?
Determined, Enthusiastic and Blessed. Not in the holy way, in the 'I am so lucky and I cannot be more grateful for all of the incredible opportunities I've had'.

If given €1,000,000 for only 24 hours, what would you do with it?
Well I guess that depends. I mean, I don't want to get super deep here, but does everything I buy with it disappear after 24 hours too? If so, I'd probably spend some of it on a cool experience, like skydiving or something, donate €100,000 to the Chernobyl Children's project for their heart operations program (and make sure operations happened within the 24 hours), give a large amount to the Malala Fund (also warning them to spend it within 24 hours), and I'd also more than likely buy a horse. Not that I don't love my pony but he's getting a bit small. I think I'd probably buy a round-the-world plane ticket (if that sort of thing exists) so I could see all my friends.

What’s your favourite TV Series?
Watching TV is a toughie for me given the fact that I barely fit in sleep. However, when I have time, I watch 'The Office' on Netflix (you can get it dubbed in French, so it counts as study, kinda).

IOS or Android? Why?
IOS for sure. I just feel like it's significantly more intuitive. Also I'm learning to code for IOS on top of everything else, so I'm probably a little biased.

Supposen, supposen, the old man got frozen, how many men got frozen?
How many men got frozen ever? During what time period? Where? What even are the criteria for someone to be classified as 'frozen'? I guess I should let it go ;) See what I did there?

What is your favourite colour?
Probably green. Not like a bright, artificial green, but the mix of all the different shades you see when you're flying over Ireland.

What drink do you order in Starbucks?
Yeah, because with all the free time I have I routinely visit Starbucks. Anytime I do make it in to the single establishment we have in Cork I usually get tea - they don't take kindly to my asking for a cup of milk.

Favourite word?
That's so tough, I don't think I can choose one. If I had to pick one I'd say pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

Favourite Book?

'Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 steps to a successful startup' by Bill Aulet. Or possible Harry Potter.

How many hours old are you?

I've just done 2 hours of maths, I'm nable sorry. When I turn 18 in December I will be 157710.

Favourite food?

I'm an extremely fussy eater unfortunately. I love basically any type of fruit, and any type of meat. Not a food, but I love milk. And I have this weird reluctance to eat of green food - yes, I know my favourite colour is green but I'm a mass of contradictions. If a food is brown, red, yellow or similar I will more than likely eat it.

My nominations go to:
1) Aoife Kearins
2) Christine Costello
3) Joana Baptista

You guys now have the pleasure of answering my questions before nominating three more bloggers to answer questions of your own:
1) If you had 3 days to live, what would you do first and why?
2) What's your last played song on itunes/spotify?
3) What's your favourite memory from the Outbox House?
4) If you had to choose one quality in a business partner what would it be?
5) Ever been stung by a wasp?
6) Guacamole or Salsa?
7) Richard Branson or Elon Musk?
8) Where was your favourite holiday?
9) What's your earliest memory?
10) If you could have any animal as a pet (no cruelty cause this is imaginary) what would it be?

Okay so that's me done, and now I have to go do more study. On a side note, look out for Project Zilkr at Web Summit. There's a lot of news coming out in the coming weeks and I'm super excited to share our progress with everyone.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

One year on from the Google Science Fair - reflecting back on a rollercoaster journey

Today marks exactly one year since myself, Emer and Sophie were crowned winners of the Google Science Fair. I still remember exactly how I felt when our names were called out that night - my stomach was a clenched into a tight ball, my shoulders (I know, my shoulders?) were trembling, and my brain felt like there was fireworks going off inside - I remember a particular tingling sensation at the very top of my skull, just behind my forehead. That's the thing folks, it wasn't the pretty picture of butterflies in my tummy or anything like that. It was a wall of raw and complex emotion smacking me full force in the face. I remember very little about those first few minutes as a Google Science Fair winner except grabbing someone's hand (which I later found out to be Emer's) and squeezing it with all my might to make sure this was real. However, I'm glad to say I can recall the following year - it was certainly one to remember.

Here are a few highlights.

The Travel
Adventure. Who doesn't love it? And I was lucky enough to go on more than my fair share of adventures this year. Soon after we won GSF, the invites started rolling in to conferences all over the world which we (of course) accepted, and before we knew it we were jetting off to a new country almost every second week, sometimes more. The most exciting of these experiences for me included WeDay UK in Wembley Arena, where we graced the stage with Sir Richard Branson addressed 12,000 students from schools all over Britain and encouraged them to follow their dreams and to try to change the world. Getting to chill backstage at Wembley was one of the craziest and wonderful opportunities I have ever had, and sitting in Sir Branson's dressing room with HRH Princess Beatrice and the man himself is a memory I will never forget.

Not to be forgotten here is the Thought For Food conference in Lisbon last February, a working lunch in Brussels for International Women's Day with Commissioner Moedas, and of course, the Do Lectures in Wales last June.

The Do Lectures really stood out to me as I have literally never attended an event of it's kind before. The first indication that this was a conference with a twist is when we were informed our accomodation would be in tents. Ever the optimists, Emer and I looked forward to this as it would make an interesting change from our usual routine. We arrived in Wales fresh from the stress of our summer exams, and honestly, nothing could have kickstarter our summer better. It was incredible - healthy discussions around a campfire in a small farmyard; lectures in a beautiful, airy barn; and workshops from speakers in open fields. The Do Lectures undoubtedly places in the top 3 of my favourite conferences ever.

The Friends
In a world where teenagers are fixated by the amount of likes on their profile pictures, I will never have to worry. Because if there's one physical, indisputable thing this experience has given me, it's friends for life. Through my trips to California, Boston, London, Ecuador and more, I have met some of the most inspirational and wonderful young people that I now have the honour of calling my friends. I still talk to my fellow Google Science Fair 2014 finalists as if we only left Mountain View yesterday, and I even managed to meet up with Eric and Sadhika during my time in Boston. Brian and Simone, our loyal compadre's from our trip to the Galapagos Islands still tease me about a disastrous bike ride (but that's another story). We're also planning a reunion in Antartica whenever one of us makes our first million. My Launchies, as I affectionately call the friends I made in Boston, are only a skype call away as we move forward working on our businesses together. And the phenomenal young ladies I met at the Outbox Incubator in London, well, let's just say I carry their milk-stealing, tea-drinking, fan fiction reading spirit with me wherever I go. It's those people, those friends, that made the last year special. Here's to reunions!

New Skills
What's an experience for unless you learn from it, right? Well I sure did learn from this experience, in more ways than one. I have known deep down since I spoke at the EU Innovation Convention in 2014 that I wanted to expand beyond science. I realised quite quickly that I have a business mindset, and wanted to explore this area further.
Shortly after winning the Google Science Fair, Emer and I launched Germinaid Innovations, a research company under which we are going to continue research in the agricultural area. Making this transition would not have been possible without the help of the Stemettes and Outbox Incubator, so it was fitting that we launched the company at the launch of Outbox last April. By that stage I had already got the good news that I had been accepted to study at MIT Launch that June, and I was really looking forward to acquiring new skills which would help me to succeed in the startup world.
So I packed my bags and it was off to America with me, where I went through the intense business bootcamp which is MIT Launch and founded PurchaseMate with Campbell, Simone and Jacob (aka three of my favourite people in the world). I have had the incredible opportunity to work with this team whilst learning all about entrepreneurship and bringing PurchaseMate into reality.

The Galapagos!
Technically this is travel, but it needs its of section because oh my god. The experience of a lifetime, literally, and it was just placed into our hands by the kind gods of National Geographic. As someone who wanted to be a zoologist for 10 years of my life, obviously I was pretty excited to head off to Equador. But honestly, the experience surpassed all expectations. We swam with sealions, seaturtles, iguanas, and octopi. A tortoise bit my foot. Emer got attacked by mosquitos. And I conquered my fear of sharks (but I'm still not their biggest fan). To be honest though, I think it's the pictures that really do the experience justice (even though I have misplaced the best ones unfortunately):



Yeah, Jeff (our Nissan Juke) definitely has to get his own section. I mean, Nissan gave us a frickin car! That is hands down one of the most random things to happen to me this year. Thanks to Jeff, I have learned to drive and plan on taking my test as soon as I can. I honestly and truly can't wait until I have my full license so I can drive myself to events which will be awesome, and put a lot less pressure on my taxi drivers (aka my parents).

Oh gosh, all these highlights. There has been more, of course, I mean MIT Launch and Outbox Incubator deserve their own sections, but you'll have to refer to other pages of my blog to find more on them. I'd really just like to thank absolutely everyone who made this year amazing (and who made it happen, really): My family; my friends; Google; the BT Young Scientist; EUCYS; Silicon Republic, Excited and Accenture for their continued support and friendship; MIT Launch; Do Lectures; WeDay; the European Commission; Thought For Food; National Geographic; Outbox Incubator; Dots (Brilliant Noise; and Kinsale Community School for letting us take so much time off!

ps: Catch me next week in Belfast at the Festival of Icons. Be there or be a triangle!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Outbox IncuBAEtor

45 teenage girls under one roof, 24 hours a day, for six weeks. It sounds like a nightmare, right? That’s not the case, and here’s why:

I think everyone who will reading this will have been aware of the Outbox Incubator. If you haven’t heard of it yet, I simply have to ask: under what rock are you living, and does it not get wifi?

The Outbox Incubator has been three busy weeks of captivating sessions on entrepreneurship, run by impressive session leads, and organized by the incredible Stemettes. Girls from all over Europe with an interest in STEM have been brought together to be prepared for life ‘outside the box’ in the world of business. Outbox has featured surprise pitches, a trip to Birmingham, all-nighter coding sessions and of course, plenty of food! My experience culminated at pitch day yesterday, where I presented my company PurchaseMate and was awarded the title of Most Investable!

To be honest, it’s really impossible to express what the Outbox Incubator means to me after my three weeks at the program. The Stemettes have succeeded in creating a warm, welcoming environment for the OB Execs. The house almost feels like a cosy little bubble where we can de-stress, take a break from the outside world, and focus on what really matters: us and our projects.

What’s interesting in programs like this is that I’ve often found that the very reason we are there fades into the background, and other things become much more important. For example, if a girl is in STEM it is common for society to define that girl by that interest. Her enthusiasm for science becomes her defining characteristic. She becomes ‘the science girl,’ and her personality becomes secondary to this preconceived notion others have of her. But bring a number of these people together, and the very characteristic they were brought together for becomes obsolete, because everyone shares this interest, and it just cancels out. In these situations, you can be defined for who you really are: your personality, sense of humor and passions, which are so much more important. In these situations, people can be seen for who they really are, which is what makes friendships formed at places like Outbox so much more special and genuine.

Anyway, what I’ve found over the past few weeks here is that the core of the Outbox Incubator is not really about the sessions where we learn business skills, or the esteemed guests and speakers we have welcomed into the house, or the endless swag we have been treated to by Salesforce and our other generous sponsors. It’s about the friendships formed, the connections made between participants, the global network being visibly fused together with every singsong, conversation, or laugh shared between new friends. It’s about late night tea parties, midnight conversations where the topics of conversation range from physics, to politics, to one direction. It’s about the people.

No matter the environment you are put in, it’s the people that make the place. Which is why the Outbox Incubator house is not a nightmare, it’s a home. It’s a family.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


At nine o clock this morning, thousands of students sat down in Irish schools all over the country to begin their state exams. Exams are always a controversial topic, especially in the past year with Junior and Leaving Certificate reforms coming into play, but whilst we often hear from teachers and politicians on the matter, sometimes the perspective which we are lacking is the most important one: that of the student.

Whether we like it or not, we face tests and exams at various points all the way through our lives. Everyone can remember those primary school Drumcondra exams, or taking your driver theory test. Opinions on exams are mixed, but there is one fact that I think everyone can agree on: they are necessary. For example, if there was no testing infrastructure in the allocation of driving licences, imagine the road – it would be a disaster!

When thinking of examinations, as a student I tend to jump to the Leaving Cert, given the fact that I’ll be facing it in a year. As examinations go, these state exams tend to come under an enormous amount of scrutiny, and sometimes as though they are overcriticised. First of all, some sort of testing system is required at the end of second level education, and whilst it has its flaws, the leaving cert does the job pretty well. In fact, it is wonderfully simple in comparison to say, the Australian ATAR system, in that it can be summarised into a single sentence: those who are capable of doing the college course of their choice stand a good chance of getting said course.

It is easy for people to put forward the idea that the Leaving Cert and indeed exams in general are not a measure of someone’s intelligence. Contrary to what you may think, I agree. But the point is, it’s not supposed to measure intelligence, it’s supposed to measure eligibility for third level courses. The exams measure your performance in a school and testing setting by challenging you on what you have learned throughout your two years of the Leaving Cert cycle. When going to college you will be in a similar setting, so it makes sense that you should be examined in this context. Exams do not measure intelligence - they measure competence (and of course, how much study you have put in).

Another complaint often heard about the exams is that they do not take into account extra-curriculars and other activities. This is quite a reasonable point, one that I have experienced myself: I travel quite a lot which means I tend to miss a lot of school (however I am lucky to have such supportive teachers and staff at Kinsale Community School that help me to find a good balance). However, I encourage you to look at it from another perspective: you don’t go to a soccer match and get tested on you maths ability, just like you don’t go to school and get merits for being on a soccer team. These activities done outside school are incredibly valuable – and that is what your CV (or resum√©) is for! As I mentioned above, the Leaving Cert points system measures your capability for the college course you want, and because your soccer ability more than likely wont be of use during your biochem degree course, it isn’t counted. But then when it comes to employment, you can include these fantastic extra activities to show that you are a well-rounded and involved person by including them in your CV or job application.

My one pet hate when it comes to criticism of examination systems, particularly the Leaving Certificate, is the assertion that they are entirely based on memory. Firstly, why the connotation that a good memory is a bad thing? Learning a language is basically remembering vocabulary and grammar rules and then putting them into practice. If you succeed in state exams this cannot be simply chalked up to memory because the nature of the state exams is such that without a fundamental comprehension of the topics, memory is nothing. Furthermore, upon close examination of many of the subjects, memory has significantly less of an impact than originally thought. For example, the French exam (I cannot comment on any other European languages as I do not study them). The written paper consists of comprehensions and essays, neither of which focus on memory, rather on a secure grasp of the language. 25% of the grade is based on an oral, and 20% can be gained from the aural. Now in my opinion, that is a pretty comprehensive test of one’s understanding of a language - and from what I hear the other European languages are structured similarly. From personal experience of studying all three sciences, memory is a component, but comprehension is significantly more important. And then of course, maths, which is about as far from rote learning as a unicorn is from a dinosaur. Which is why I find it interesting that many of those who complain about the exams being a memory test also have an issue with the 25 extra points for passing honours maths.

Now, I’m not unreasonable. I accept that our examination system has flaws. But instead of sitting around complaining about it, why don’t we try to come up with solutions? I know that resources will be an issue, especially in this economic climate, so I would propose that we use an already working system on which to piggyback the reforms. To tackle the complaint about the points system not taking other aspects like communication skills and community involvement I suggest an interview process similar in format to the Irish oral, where students can discuss their achievements, passions and interests with an examiner for up to say, 25 discretionary points. I realise that a problem with this will be that this system is quite subjective which contrasts sharply with the anonymous, impartial system we have currently. However I never acknowledge a fault without providing a possible solution so that is mine.

The last thing we need to remember about exams is that your results do not define you. Honestly, I do not believe society places too much store in exam results, but I can understand how those who feel the pressure of exams might feel that way. Even employers know that there is more to a person than letters or numbers on a piece of paper, and I truly believe that if you are willing to work hard, you will find a way to succeed.

Finally, whilst I have focused on the Leaving Certificate here, this rings true for many testing structures and examination system in our lives today. We in Ireland have little cause to complain: we are provided with free second level education; significantly cheaper third level education than in the US or the UK; and our examination system is so unbiased that a teenager from Kinsale has just as good a chance of succeeding as the son or daughter of a government minister. There are three things you can be sure of in life: death, taxes and examinations – and as tests go, the Leaving Cert isn’t all that bad.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Yes for Equality, Yes for Love

"Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution." (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16i)

On May 22nd 2015, the Irish electorate will be given the opportunity to change society for the better. It's a simple question, yes or no, that they will be answering in this referendum, but the outcome of their votes have the potential to change the lives of countless thousands of people in our country. If passed, this referendum will allow homosexual marriage in Ireland.

We are told as children from the time we can comprehend sentences that being different is nothing to be ashamed of. 'Value what makes you different,' we were told by our parents, teachers, and mentors: 'because that's what makes you special.' The mere fact that human beings can be so hugely diverse is something which should be celebrated: it is a pure monument, a miracle, a magical feat of nature itself. These are the values I see taught to my four year old cousin, who has just started primary school, these are the values taught to me as a second level student, and those are the values society is said to hold dear. The phrase 'different but equal' comes to mind. But unfortunately this is not true, despite our apparent openness to diversity.

It is a widely accepted fact that all human beings are born equal with equal rights and responsibilities as a global citizen. Therefore, how is it that a demographic of the population is being denied their right to marry as a result of their sexual orientation? This is a fundamental discrepancy in an outdated constitution, one that did not foresee the huge steps we have taken in recent times towards self freedom and expression. It is natural for this to happen in such a fast moving world, quickly changing for the better. However, this is why we have referenda: we are now being given an opportunity to write our names into history as the generation who gave all members of the population the equal rights they deserve.

I know some people may disagree fundamentally with the principle of homosexual marriage on religious principles. I won't try to change your mind - you have a right to your religion. I do have a question, however: I believe everyone has heard of the widely accepted philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi that every right has a corresponding responsibility.  You have a right to practise your religion, but you have a responsibility to ensure that it does not impact on the rights of others - if you vote no to this referendum, are you respecting this responsibility? Marriage is not exclusively a religious act. This referendum references it's position in civil law, in a secular way. Allowing homosexual marriage does not impinge on anyone's religion, it merely grants the right to others to celebrate their love, recognised by law in a way equal with heterosexual marriage.

I look forward to a day when the phrase 'different but equal' will truly have a meaning in society. The proclamation of the 1916 Easter Rising states: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens." As we enter into the centenary of this momentous event in our country's history, what better way to celebrate it than to lay down another landmark for the Irish Republic. Let us make another step towards ensuring this declaration is fulfilled, and take another stride towards a country where we have equal rights for all by voting yes on May 22nd.

Love is love. No matter what form it comes in.


For Yvonne and Ciara

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Food for thought at Thought For Food

I wrote this post a few weeks ago on the plane returning from Lisbon where I attended the Thought For Food Global Summit. Unfortunately with my various shenanigans, I haven't had a chance to post it, so here it is now (only one month late, because who needs punctuality anyway):

When we got an email last October from the organisers of a conference in Lisbon offering to fly us and our parents to Portugal, I'll admit, I was puzzled: it was an awful lot of expense to go to for three girls from Ireland. It wasn't until I arrived at the Thought for Food challenge that I realised, this was exactly where we needed to be.

The Thought for Food Challenge is a competition open to all those interested in doing something about the increasing problem of the food crisis. Business teams are invited to develop and launch an innovation which might contribute to making the world more food secure. This year, the final of the challenge took place in Lisbon along with a two day conference where intellectuals and experts in the area of food security debated the problems we are facing their solutions, with one big question hanging over us all: 'how do we feed 9 billion people by 2050?'

I got the unique opportunity to really broaden my view of the possible solutions to the food crisis by attending workshops including a focus group on the marketing and ethics implications of synthetically produced food. Synthetically produced food is kinda like food that has been 3D printed- remember a few years ago when they '3D printed' the first burger, so it hadn't really come from a cow? The man who ran the workshop was the mastermind behind that operation: an example of the calibre of people at TFF. He explained how he went about creating his innovation, from the collection of the protein sample, to it's replication, to historically serving it up on television to a panel of renowned culinary experts. The group at the workshop then discussed the ethical, political, social and environmental difficulties of commercialisation of the process. Hearing perspectives from many different demographics during this debate made me realise something very important: with every great new discovery comes multiple 'wrinkles' as we progress into this fast moving age of innovation. This doesn't mean we shouldn't move forward - simply that these must be carefully considered and thought through.

But of course, this trip to Lisbon wasn't completely free - we had a job to do too! We were invited on stage (which, on a side note, was made of cardboard, and that was cool) to share our journey with the attendees and give our own opinions of the food crisis, a truly unique and unforgettable experience, especially when I accidentally called the audience old!

 To finish, the finalist teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges in a bid to win the grand prize of $10,000 seed money to help their concepts become a reality. It truly was a close call, and the judges had some tough decisions to make. At the end of the day, InnoVision was announced as the victors (like the hunger games- double pun), for their approach to food storage which gives farmers an alternative to the use of toxic chemicals in preserving their produce. The night ended on with some great celebration as we danced the rest of the night away with the TFF competitors!

We also were lucky enough to get the chance to see a bit of Lisbon, a beautifully historic city, and we had a great time on the tram!

I write this quite contentedly on the plane home from Portugal before catching another flight out to Manchester immediately afterwards on a 'personal holiday' to see some friends I made last year at the London International Youth Science Forum! One thing I do need: a frequent flier membership.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Happy International Women's Day! : Guest Blog by Aisling Judge

So if anyone has been watching my twitter page, I've been travelling quite a lot recently to events like #WeDayUK. Because of this, I haven't had much time to update my blog, but I wanted to do something for International Women's Day. So I asked my sister Aisling, a graduated biochemical engineer who is now studying for a Masters in University College London, to write down a few of her thoughts on the subject. Here is what she had to say:

When I announced to my parents as a 17 year old that I thought I wanted to be an engineer they were surprised. Not because they doubted my capability but more due to the fact that I had never expressed an interest in the field before. In fact, I was vehemently set against the idea. You see, I come from a family of engineers. My father is a chemical engineer and for as long as I can remember all my brother (who is 4 years my elder) wanted to be when he grew up was an engineer. So yes, my resistance was partially driven by the fact I didn’t want to be seen to be taking the easy path by simply following in the family tradition but there was more to it than just that.

As a child I was not restricted by gender stereotypes in anyway. I was the ultimate tomboy, a trait my family fully embraced. I was more likely to be found playing with an action man than a barbie (although to be honest dolls of any kind weren’t really my thing!), while trips to Santa’s grotto would somehow involve the very loud specifications that I was a 6 year old ‘who loves playing with boy’s toys’ to tip off the unsuspecting elves that the blue parcel might be more appropriate. I envisioned myself becoming many things in my future but never thought of myself as an engineer.

For me it was nothing directly to do with gender per se, I never once thought I couldn’t be an engineer because I was female. Being in the minority has never been something which phased me and I will certainly never let it influence my decisions. The barrier to picturing myself in a hard hat or working on a computer design was not the perceived masculinity of the role or the academic challenges it may pose but more the skill set I thought it entailed, a skill set I believed I was lacking. You see, my brother grew up building things. Lego, Kinex, Lincoln logs - you name it, he had it. He loved everything about designing and creating and could spend hours and hours on end working on his masterpieces. It was often said by those who knew him that he was born to be an engineer.

As a young girl I quickly realised I was nothing like my brother. I never expressed such interests or aptitudes and so never thought engineering would be for me. Not because I wasn’t encouraged or exposed to such activities but quite frankly because I never found them stimulating. If something broke, I wasn’t rushing to try and fix it and I certainly never popped the car bonnet to have a look at the engine. Yet, even though I did none of these things when I was a child as I have progressed through my studies I have realised that I too was born with an engineering mind and maybe as a youngster I simply did not display my aptitude so clearly.

I believe that engineering in its essence centres on ‘logical problem solving’, which does not always manifest itself in hands on activities that are often associated with the career, but rather in more subtle ways. Of course when a child spends their time dismantling things and re-building them it almost waves a red flag for the parents that engineering might be a suitable future career option, but sometimes these skills can be more subtle and particularly in the case of girls, harder to spot.

As a youngster I almost never remember building or fixing something. Instead I loved puzzles, riddles and just about anything that made me think. Even better if the game didn’t have a single right answer, but rather required you to reason and justify your solution. As an 8 year old I could beat anyone young or old in the traffic jam logic game “Rush Hour”, in my early teens I was a whizz at Sodoku and most recently the Rubik’s cube has caught my attention. However on top of these interests I still played sport, read books and generally had many other hobbies which often overshadowed those problem solving skills. As a result I was never characterised as a budding engineer like my brother. A scientist, lawyer and even a journalist were mentioned, but not an engineer.

This I believe is where gender plays a role in the number of girls choosing to study engineering at third level. Not for the traditionally spouted reason of engineering being seen as a male-dominated career, but rather due to the gender disparity in the identification of the skill sets of our young people. There is no single subject on a school report card that will straight away alert a parent or student to an aptitude for engineering (while a talent for maths is important, engineering requires much more than just numeracy skills). If a student gets an A in accounting the business, economics and accounting opportunities will straight away be highlighted, good grades in chemistry and biology might encourage students into medical sciences, a prowess for english could lead to journalism and so such links can continue for many university degree’s.

Engineering is not so simple. It is often not what is done in the classroom that is the best indication of engineering talent, it is the way a student thinks and approaches problems that is key. The ability to identify these skills in a student seems to correlate with gender far too often, with girls more than capable of becoming fantastic engineers slipping through the net almost unnoticed because they demonstrate these strengths in a more understated way than their male counterparts. Yet if someone might have said to them “you think like an engineer” everything could have been different. Because after all, no one said that to me – and I very nearly missed my calling.

Aisling won the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in 2006 with her project entitled 'The development and evaluation of a biological food spoilage indicator.' She later placed 3rd in the EU Contest for Young Scientists with this project while representing Ireland in the competition. In 2014 she graduated from University College Dublin with a first class honours bachelors degree in Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering. She is currently studying for a masters in Biochemical Engineering in University College London. Aisling has long championed the involvement of Women in STEM, having written a guest column for Ireland's leading Tech and Innovation site, Silicon Republic on her thoughts on the matter.