It all started at the beginning of first year at St.Mary’s Secondary School in Mallow, Co. Cork. I asked my science teacher, Martin Timmons, if I could do a project for the BT Young Scientist competition. He was extremely enthusiastic about it and when my friend Shauna joined, we got started straight away. We never thought at that early stage we would get as far as we did, not in a million years.
Last May, we won two awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We presented our project titled “Measurement of Radon Emanation and its Correlation with Indoor Radon Levels in Some Areas of Mallow” at the world’s largest school science competition, with over 1,700 students from 75 countries.
We were amazed to have won a special award from the American Society of Chemistry, especially since we were one of the youngest competitors there. At the next awards ceremony to our surprise we were placed fourth in the chemistry category. It really did feel like we were world champions.
Before taking the world stage though, we got what we thought was the opportunity of a lifetime to go and compete at the BT Young Scientist in Dublin. All my friends were competing and we had an absolute ball. It came as an absolute shock that we won three awards and a chance to represent Ireland in the US!
Our project studies the noble gas Radon. Colourless, odourless, tasteless, yet it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in Ireland after smoking due to the radioactivity when it breaks down into harmful elements like lead and polonium. We got the idea for the project when our science teacher said one day in class that Mallow had one of the highest levels of Radon in Ireland, and even the world. We thought this was an interesting topic and we decided to research it. To our surprise, there was very little information about Radon levels in Mallow. So we decided do carry out our own research and survey Radon levels in our school and homes around Mallow town. We wanted to find out how Radon differed in different areas and to see where we could find “Radon hotspots”. To do this we sourced two Canary Digital Monitors. They were very good instruments but unfortunately, if we wanted to carry out all the experiments we intended to do, we would have to find something that was more cost efficient. So then we researched a special type of method, which involved placing a chip of CR-39 plastic into a specially calibrated yoghurt pot (Benecol was a perfect fit!) and leaving it in a room for six days. Alpha particles emanated from Radon would then hit the plastic and leave microscopic dents. Once etched in Sodium Hydroxide, the Radon in the room can be measured by counting all the dents left on the plastic through a microscope. Using our ‘yoghurt pot detectors’ we were able to carry out hundreds of experiments and make our own apparatus to test for the presence of Radon in water, soil and plants.
So six months of hard work, holidays spent in the lab and over 700 CR-39 chips later, we had a paper filled with all the data and conclusions we had for the Radon situation in Mallow. Some of our results included that over 50% of houses in Mallow had high Radon levels, well water outside of Mallow had dangerously high levels of Radon, all rooms tested in our school had considerably high levels of Radon and we found that Radon can pass from soil to plants, plants to animals and animals to the human food chain, which can affect the amount of radioactivity in the diet. These results are alarming and we are hoping that this will push authorities to take action to decrease Radon levels in our town.
We are so lucky to have been so successful in America; we thought that getting to Dublin was winning in itself! We hope we have encouraged other young people to get involved in science and technology!