EUCYS 2008

Europe’s budding geniuses

The first-prize winners of the 20th European Union Contest for Young Scientists, Copenhagen, 2008. From left to right: Magdalena Bojarska (Poland), Martin Tkác (Slovakia) and Elisabeth Muller (United Kingdom). © Ole Mortensen/Tilsted Com.
The first-prize winners of the 20th European Union Contest for Young Scientists, Copenhagen, 2008. From left to right: Magdalena Bojarska (Poland), Martin Tkác (Slovakia) and Elisabeth Muller (United Kingdom). © Ole Mortensen/Tilsted Com.
© Ole Mortensen/Tilsted Com.
© Ole Mortensen/Tilsted Com.

The contestants came from all over Europe and the rest of the world bringing scientifically cutting-edge projects. The whizz kids who gathered in Copenhagen for the 20th European Union Contest for Young Scientists in September 2008 certainly belie reports lamenting the next generation’s aversion to science.

The participants were aged between 14 and 21 and hailed from 39 different countries. What did they have in common? They are all science buffs. So much so that a number of their projects have led to scientific advances and, for the lucky contestants, patents. The 20th edition of the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS 2008) set up its headquarters in a luxury Copenhagen hotel. Throughout an entire week, the budding researchers patiently presented their projects to a succession of reporters, prominent figures and jury members in the hope of scooping a prize.

Top-flight competition

The European Commission, which foots most of the bill for the event, spares no expense for the EUCYS contest. The winners receive a cash prize of between €3 500 and €7 000. With a total of nine core prizes for the winning projects (three first prizes, three second prizes and three third prizes) and, for the very first time this year, a special international cooperation prize for non-European participants (see box), the total prize money was some €51 500 . The contest sponsors offered a number of donated prizes, including one-week stays at each of EIROforum’s seven member organisations (among them, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)). In addition there was a visit to the European Patent Office (EPA) in Munich (DE) and Danish industry also offered a string of prizes.

That was not all. The contestants were pampered throughout the week. They were treated to dinners with speakers, shows, a meeting with Nobel Prize candidates, visits to flagship Danish industries, a comprehensive guided tour of Copenhagen and much more. “We’ve never stayed in such a grand hotel and participated in such wonderful festivities,” said Marion Deriot and Héléna Lacroix. Their stand ‘Physics from breakfast’ analysed the principles behind the vortices that appear when a spoon is used to stir a liquid. Like all the young scientists attending the event, these two French girls from Dijon were selected for EUCYS 2008 after winning their national young scientists’ contest.

Projects to suit every pocket

Impressed by the standard of their rivals, Marion and Héléna were sceptical about their chances of winning the contest. “Our experimental equipment is made from an assortment of odds and ends,” explained Héléna. “We wanted to show that you don’t need outrageously expensive equipment to do physics. Once we got here, though, we noticed that many of the candidates have sophisticated equipment.”

Marion and Héléna did not need to worry because their homespun project was awarded an EIROforum prize. So, Héléna will travel to the European Fusion Development Agreement-Joint European Torus (EFTA-JET), based in the United Kingdom, while Marion will fly to La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile to visit the Very Large Telescope (VLT) operated by the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO).

“Young people in Europe often see science as boring, even in primary school. The trend continues throughout their school lives and ultimately influences the upcoming generation’s career choices. That is why it is so important to support initiatives like EUCYS,” explains Claus Madsen, chairman of the EIROforum coordination group who represented his organisation at EUCYS 2008.

The grand finale of EUCYS 2008, the award ceremony that all the competitors anxiously awaited (and relief given the level of tension) was held in the prestigious Circus Building, a stone’s throw from Copenhagen’s famous Tivoli amusement park. In this superb setting, with all the women in formal evening attire and the men in dinner jackets, the distinguished guest list included HRH Prince Joachim of Denmark, Danish Education Minister Bertel Haarder and European Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik. ”I am extremely pleased to see two young women and two candidates from the new Member States on the prize-winner’s podium,” remarked the Commissioner. “We have before us the future of European research. Not only because young people represent the future, but also because science plays a key role in our future.”

Mathematics, engineering and earth science were all awarded first prizes at EUCYS (see boxes). Biology and physics also took their places on the prestigious podium. For the participants, EUCYS is not necessarily all about winning though. What they appreciate most is the chance to meet young people from such a variety of countries and specialised fields. At a time when research issues are so wide-ranging that they require international and interdisciplinary research teams, events like EUCYS undoubtedly help future researchers to find out at first hand what science really entails and to start building a Europe-wide network.

Julie Van Rossom



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Magdalena Bojarska: ‘Hamiltonian cycles in generalised Halin graphs’

At the age of 17, Magdalena Bojarska is already an accomplished mathematician. “When I was in secondary school, I had a very good mathematics teacher. It was from him that I first heard about graph theory,” explained the budding scientist from Poland. “I wanted to study generalised graphs. That’s how I started to work on this project.”

Her area of predilection? Hamiltonian cycles. A Hamiltonian cycle, also called a Hamiltonian circuit, Hamilton cycle, or Hamilton circuit, is a graph cycle (a closed loop) through a graph that visits each node exactly once. A graph possessing a Hamiltonian cycle is said to be a Hamiltonian graph. The Polish schoolgirl bent her mind to studying Hamiltonian cycles in Halin graphs, a special class of planar graphs each of which is known to contain a Hamiltonian cycle. Not content with having introduced a more general notion of Halin graphs of degree n and proven a new and interesting theorem which gives a necessary and sufficient condition that a Halin graph of degree two is Hamiltonian, she has also described a simple combinatorial polynomial time algorithm that checks whether a Halin graph contains a Hamiltonian cycle going through a prescribed set of edges. Although alternative methods exist, Magdalena’s algorithm simplifies the calculations considerably.

Too abstract, you say? Well no, not really, because this branch of geometry has numerous everyday applications, such as calculating itineraries, designing transport networks or developing computer nodes. So Magdalena has managed to be an innovator while still at secondary school. Her work earned her a top prize at EUCYS 2008. What does she intend to do with her €7 000 prize? “I have absolutely no idea yet,” she admitted at the press conference following the award ceremony.



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Martin Tkáč: ‘Tilting of bulk materials based on gravitation principle in cargo railway transport’

Martin is a budding engineer from the Kosice technical secondary school for transport in Slovakia. “I have been interested in rail transportation since I was a child,” he told journalists just after receiving first prize. “A technology teacher at secondary school told me about the disadvantages of cargo railway transport and pressed me to develop my project.”

Martin set to work on designing a novel method for unloading bulk materials (like coal, grains and sand) with none of the drawbacks of traditional energy- and labour-intensive methods. His system relies on a new type of wagon and pulley mechanism where gravity is used to discharge the cargo. The wagon, attached at each end to a special device, is towed and suspended in air, where it spontaneously tips upside down under the force of gravity. Once empty, the wagon returns to its initial position and can be set back on the rails.

“Martin’s project proposes not only an extremely thorough analysis of the advantages and principles of his approach, but also a scale model of the entire system,” comments Jane Grimson, professor of computer science at Trinity College of Dublin (IE) and president of the EUCYS 2008 jury. “In short, it is an extremely comprehensive and in-depth engineering project. Even though further studies are needed to confirm the viability of Martin’s approach, his originality and creativity have earned him one of the top spots on the podium.”



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Elisabeth Muller: ‘From microcosm to magma oceans – a lunar meteorite perspective’

Although Elisabeth’s project is about the geology of the Moon, this 18 year old has her feet planted firmly on the ground. “My father is a geologist. When I was little, I would bring him rocks so that he could tell me about their history. I loved it.” This explains the young Briton’s passion for geology. “As I wanted to conduct novel research, I concentrated on the Moon,” she explained to the press after receiving her prize. She focused her research on MIL05035, a lunar meteorite found by a team of NASA researchers in the Antarctic in 2005.

Elisabeth studied the mineralogy (mineral composition) and petrology (mechanisms that led to the formation) of MIL05035 in order to draw inferences about the lunar meteorite’s origin. The basaltic rock was formed more than 4 billion years ago from magma that had cooled after a volcanic period on the Moon. The study of this meteorite provides new clues to understanding the formation and development of Earth’s natural satellite, the Moon. Elisabeth conducted her research at the laboratories of CEPSAR, the Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (UK), thanks to a bursary from the Nuffield Foundation. “I’m planning to study for a doctorate after my degree, and the€ 7 000 prize will allow me to fund it,” says an overjoyed Elisabeth who recently embarked on her first year of a geology degree at Oxford University (UK).



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Pippa Grierson: ‘Fighting facial eczema’

The study by 16-year-old Pippa Grierson, from Katikati College in New Zealand, concerns a potentially fatal type of facial eczema in grass-fed livestock. Every year the disease costs New Zealand’s meat, wool and dairy industries between $80 and 400 million. It is caused by animals ingesting toxic spores from the fungus Pithomyces chartarum, which grows in the dead litter layer of the pasture. The spores contain a toxin that causes severe liver damage and skin photosensitisation, leading to severe and painful sunburn and other potentially fatal complications.

Pippa’s choice of subject was no accident. Her father is a sheep farmer and had noticed that fewer animals developed facial eczema on paddocks where organic agricultural lime had been spread. The young biologist set out to verify how useful liming is in stemming the spread of the mycotoxin. She compared two different types of lime and evaluated the optimum application rate needed to kill spores. Her Herculean task earned her the first ever EUCYS prize for international cooperation awarded to the best non-European project.



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