Caoimhe Cronin and Shauna Murphy, second year students at St. Mary’s Secondary School, Mallow, will compete in this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF). The event will take place from 10-15 May in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They will present a project based on measuring radon levels in Mallow.
It is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. More than 1,700 students from over 70 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research and compete for more than 5 million dollars in prizes. Caoimhe and Shauna were chosen by Intel to represent Ireland after they impressed at the 2015 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, held in Dublin earlier this year. Since their success in Dublin, where they picked up three awards, the two girls have continued with their research.
Their work is based on measuring radon levels in houses, water, and in their own school. They have engineered their own radon detectors for houses using donated yoghurt pots and tastrak, a clear stable plastic which is sensitive to energetic protons. Tastrak Analysis Systems Ltd sponsored 700 tastrak units worth approximately 1,400 euro. One radon detector is left in a house for a period of six weeks. Another is placed outside the house for comparison. Once the pots are returned, the girls analyse the plastic to measure radon.
According to Caoimhe and Shauna, anything over 200 Bq/m3 is an unacceptably high level of radon. The girls also note that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer worldwide. Worryingly, one in every two houses fully tested showed unacceptably high levels of radon. A solution for a homeowner whose house is overexposed to radon is to install an efficient ventilation system.
A number of measures are in place at St. Mary’s aimed at minimising the school’s exposure to radon. For example, a radon sheet, covering the foundations, was put in place when the school was built. Also, pumps under the ground work to divert radon away from the building. As part of their research, Caoimhe and Shauna are working to identify any areas of the school where ventilation can be improved, thus further minimising radon exposure.
The girls are also investigating radon levels in water. They have been testing drinking water sourced from the Mallow reservoir, and well water. Interestingly, the girls found that groundwater has more radon than town water. The geological conditions of well water, with rocks and layers of soil, means that radon is less likely to escape in comparison to water in the reservoir.
Apart from Tastrak Analysis Systems Ltd, Caoimhe and Shauna are receiving support from a number of other groups. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland give the girls advice when needed, and access to academic papers. JMP, a company that specialises in statistical analysis, provided the girls with advanced software at a discount, which they use to generate graphs and analyse results. However, the project has been predominately based in one of the science labs at St. Mary’s. It is there, under the guidance of their teacher, Mr. Martin Timmons, that all the hard work is being done.
Both Caoimhe and Shauna hope that their work will provide a template for future research. They are particularly interested in looking at how radon can be absorbed by plants and as a result enter the food chain. To this end, they have already begun testing plants.
When asked how they hope to benefit from all their hard work, Shauna responded by saying, ‘It will look great on the CV. Also, our skills in maths and science have come on considerably. This should be of great benefit when we take on these subjects in the Leaving Cert. We have made invaluable contacts at university level, which may be useful in the future. Both Caoimhe and I will consider science or maths based study when we finish school. But we are keeping all options open!’
Caoimhe and Shauna will be accompanied on their trip to Pittsburgh by Mr. Timmons and a small group of family and friends. Caoimhe sees the trip as ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity. We will try our very best. However, we also intend to have fun and enjoy the experience. Winning would be a bonus!’