Skip to main content
Home » Women in STEM » How a school science project took me round the world and changed my life
Women in STEM

How a school science project took me round the world and changed my life


Emer Hickey

2nd-year Biology student at UCC

Former Irish Girl Guide; Googlescience Fair Winner 2014; BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition Winner 2013 and Time Magazine Most Influential Teengers in The World 2014

“At 15 we built incubators, bioreactors and shaker tables from corporate donations and stuff we found in the attic. We never expected to get the results we did.”

I distinctly remember the moment I got into science. At thirteen, in my first year of secondary school, we had a Biology teacher who always taught us more than we needed. Microbiology wasn’t on the curriculum but one day she mentioned how bacterium is all around us and beyond the visibility of a human eye. I thought about it and realised, ‘wow that’s pretty cool’. It was because of that moment that I decided to enter Ireland’s National Science Fair 2014.

I was also involved in the Girl Guides since the age of six, and I think it did really help shape me as a person and definitely made me more independent. We learnt a lot about what it meant to be an active citizen which I think is something that was reflected in all of my future projects.

The winning project

I entered the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin with two friends, where we competed against 550 other school projects. We built our own lab in one of the girls’ spare rooms. It was a mix of charitable donations and stuff we found in the attic.

Our project researched the use of nitrogen-fixing bacterium (Diazotroph) in soil to accelerate germination of oats and barley. We really didn’t have much background in the subject but unexpectedly found positive results.

We increased the crop germination rate of barley and oats up to 50%, which could have huge implications for crop yields, especially those with acidic soils. The potential of these findings, the use of statistical programmes and the fact we built a homemade lab really impressed the judges.

We went on to represent Ireland at the European Contest for Young Scientists in Prague and entered the Google Science Fair in California. The judges saw the experimental methods we followed and it was incredible to have our project recognised, alongside such competitive, high-tech projects, and then to win top prize in both. The team received $50,000 toward the continuation of our project and an exhibition to the Galápagos Islands. We are still working to bring the project to a commercial setting and hope to make a real difference.

Encouraging girls in science

For me, that project played the biggest role in my desire to pursue a career in science. Since then, I’ve worked at the London International Youth Science Forum to promote girls to choose science and encourage extra-curricula projects that could make a real difference to people’s lives.

Careers in science often challenge real world issues. The big things, like antibiotic resistance, limited global resources… it’s up to the people in science to find workable solutions.

Science is for everyone

I’ve had incidences of gender discrimination, including a physicist in Italy telling me girls should stick to ‘romantic subjects’ like English or romantic poetry – plainly ridiculous views. As a second year Biology student at UCC, girls are represented just as well as boys and everyone is treated the same.

It’s important that actions are taken so all women in STEM feel the same way. Happily, you can feel a big push for gender equality across the sector at the moment.

Advice for potential students

For any potential undergraduates, it’s crucial to pick the subject you like and remember that the possibilities are endless. I still have no idea what career I’ll have when I graduate.

 You could end up in a pharmaceutical laboratory, or doing breakthrough research abroad; you could work in media, or find yourself running a business! So don’t focus too hard on the destination but follow the most interesting path. With hard work, you will end up where you should be.

Next article