Thursday, 25 January 2018

Lay off the bitchin': it's discouraging

Further musings on BTYS [prev; prevlier]: I'm usually aware of the BT Young Scientist BTYS competition as it come around every year in early January. When our girls were of the equivalent age we even went up to the show a couple of times. But the timing is awkward for me as it coincides with the end of the first week back teaching at The Institute. Usually, therefore, BTYS surfaces in my mind around New Year and then sinks into oblivion without me knowing who won or what the sexy projects had been (the two are not always the same). A friend of mine was a BTYS judge for several years, so I know something of the efforts the system puts in place to ensure that the winners deserve the ballyhoo. There are lots of subsidiary prizes too, so lots of good kids get a bit of a boost and hopefully are encouraged to stay on in science when they leave school.

This year's Winner Winner was Simon Meehan [L holding his active principle] of Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, Co Cork; with a microbiological project "Investigation of the antimicrobial effects of both aerial and root parts of selected plants against Staphylococcus aureus".  That gave me a frisson of interest because briefly in my butterfly life as a scientist, I'd also made a contribution to devising a novel therapy against MRSA = methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is what kills you if you go to hospital for a hip-replacement. It's not really a problem outside of hospital - 30% of us have some MRSA up our noses without it being the least bother. Our immune system and the other bacterial actors on the surface of our nasal epithelium keep the bad boys at bay. Back in 2005 and 2007 we found that certain anti-microbial peptides AMPs, which we had discovered in the chicken genome, were particularly effective at killing some pathogenic bacteria. With a rush of blood to the head we thought about setting up a campus company which would design novel AMPs - effective against MRSA, cholera and whatever you're having yourself. One of our post-grads was notably ambitious and enterprising in the pursuit of science, fortune and fame. One of the consultant surgeons in the hospital, where all the research was going on, was approached for the first tranche of VC. We started to casually use corporate-speak about burn-rate, low-hanging fruit, and paradigm shift. Then it all went pear-shaped. Our Young Turk went to work with another research group, the consultant went back to his theatre saving lives directly and the vision about  retiring on our money at 40 fizzled out in a bath of dull reality.

I would have missed Simon Meehan's story entire if my correspondent G [prev, prevlier] hadn't sent me a link from  You often get interesting discussions, insights and straight-dope info on but the only qualification for contributing is that you have an internet connexion.  The tenor of the commentary about young Meehan is that about 10 years ago his mother Brigid Lucey, a scientist (now in CIT then at Cork University Hospital) and a student at Cork IT Susan O'Shea  investigated the MRSA-killing power of certain wild-flower extracts. The implication being that the son is just a sock-puppet for his Mum.

In general rather than in this particula, at least as relevant as the parent is the science teacher. During the 43 years the competition has been running, 4 schools have won twice and 2 schools have won thrice. No fair! the begrudgers complain: there are nearly 800 secondary school in the country, why don't they get a chance? Because the quality of the mentoring, the passion in their science department and/or the spare capacity and commitment of their teaching staff is wanting. Let's hear it for the teachers and the ethos at Abbey Grammar School, Newry; Coláiste Mhuire, Dublin Kinsale Community School; Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál, Blarney; St Finian’s College, Mullingar; Synge Street CBS, Dublin.

I find prima facie that the sock-puppet theory of BTYS success is both unlikely and unfair. Every year about 60,000 kids sit their Junior Certificate, that is more or less every 15/16 y.o. in the country. Only a few hundred of those kids start doing a Young Scientist project on top of their school work. The rest don't: they have enough on their plate with hormones, school, drink, sports, helping on the farm, sex, tricking about with their smart-phones, sex, worrying about being bullied, bullying smaller people, counting their Friendface friends, sex, recovering from the binge drinking session last Friday, volunteering with St. John's Ambulance, more drink, instagraming another picture of themselves or their parts in the hope of getting more sex.

Why does one teenager have an interest in science while another goes swimming?
Because they click with their science-teacher [_];
because their pals are also doing sciency things [_];
because they have a relative who does science [_];
because of that documentary they saw on the TV [_];
because they read Feynman's book [_];
because they 'are good at it' [_];
Tick all that apply. If a kid ticks none-of-the-above then s/he is most unlikely to win the BTYS . . . because s/he never got into the traps at the beginning of the race. But even if you tick ALL the boxes, you need additional toolkit else to be successful.
  • You need to Do The Work - nobody won a prize without data
  • You need to analyse the results - nobody aged 15 knows enough statistics to design the experiments and apply the correct tests to determine if they are interesting; so you almost certainly need help, guidance or discussion on this. My experience in the local competition is that statistical knowledge is close to nil.
  • You need to continue through the dark tea-time of the soul when nothing is going right: when your trial plants get eaten by your brother's rabbit; when it rains every day in July; when you spill coffee on your (unbackedup) laptop; when you find fungus all over your Petri-dishes.
  • You need to present the data presentably: deciding what details are left on the cutting room floor; deciding that Helvetica looks better on your poster than [default] Calibri; deciding how to best graph the results [not a bar chart!!]; deciding which picture will catch a judge's eye.
  • You need to defend your results, your experimental design and your methodology, when grilled by the judges
Who had the original idea is the least of it and it was aNNyway almost certainly only part of an idea which grew through discussion and preliminary results and changes in direction when the original concept met reality on the ground. I've written with some hilarity at the thought that ideas spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus. The begrudgers on should just zip it unless they have some better evidence that young Meehan didn't do the work. And sitting on your fat arse on the sofa busily typing one-liners on doesn't really give you locus standi as a referee of scientific ethics.

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