The 34th annual edition of an EU contest for teenage researchers wrapped up this past week with participants from Canada, Denmark, Poland and Portugal claiming the top prize.
By Sofía Manzanaro
Inês Alves Cerqueira of Portugal just spent five days in Brussels and left with a top EU prize for young scientists.
But ask 17-year-old Cerqueira what she remembers most about the event, which featured 136 contestants from three dozen countries in Europe and beyond, and the much-coveted award gets hardly any mention.
‘I loved listening to all the projects and having conversations about science without having to worry about people judging me or anything like that,’ she said as the 34th annual EU Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) drew to a close in the Belgian capital.
Worries or not, Cerqueira and the other contestants aged 14 to 20 years were judged by a jury of 22 distinguished scientists and engineers from across Europe as part of the official competition. It featured 85 science projects in the running for first, second and third awards that shared a total of €62 000 in prize money.
The rewards also include scholarships and visits to institutions such as the European Space Agency, nuclear-research organisation CERN and a forum that brings together eight of the largest research bodies in Europe.
All the participants had already won first prizes in national science competitions. At EUCYS, four projects won the top prize and received €7 000 each.
Cerqueira claimed hers with two teammates: Afonso Jorge Soares Nunes and Mário Covas Onofre. The three Portuguese, who come from the northern coastal city of Porto, are exploring the potential of spider silk to treat bone diseases including osteoporosis.
The EUCYS projects, which ranged from rocket science and chronic-pain drugs to climate demographics and river pollution, were as varied as the backgrounds of the participants, who came from as far away as Canada and South Korea.
Canadian Elizabeth Chen was another first-prize winner for a project on a cancer therapy. The two other top-award recipients were Maksymilian Gozdur of Poland for an entry on judicial institutions and Martin Stengaard Sørensen of Denmark for an initiative on rocket propulsion systems.
‘EUCYS is about rewarding the enthusiasm, passion and curiosity of Europe’s next generation of bright minds finding new solutions to our most pressing challenges,’ said Marc Lemaître, the European Commission’s director-general for research and innovation.
Eagerness and spirit were on general display at the event. So was camaraderie.
Noemi Marianna Pia, Pietro Ciceri and Davide Lolla, all 17 year olds from Italy, said they felt themselves winners by having earned spots at EUCYS for a project on sustainable food and described the event as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to mix with fellow young scientists from around the world.
The three Italians want to develop plant-based alternatives to animal proteins. At their exhibition stand, they talked with contagious excitement about their research while holding dry chickpeas and soybeans.
Lolla said that, while his pleasures include tucking into a juicy steak, he feels a pressing need to reduce meat consumption to combat climate change and preserve biodiversity.
On the other side of the venue, 16-year-old Eleni Makri from Cyprus recalled how a classroom chat about summer plans sparked an idea to use seagrass on many of the island’s beaches to produce fertiliser.
Her project partner, Themis Themistocleous, eagerly joined the conversation to explain how seagrass can recover phosphate from wastewater. The process involves thermal treatment of the seagrass.
Themistocleous also expressed pride at having been chosen by Makri as her teammate for the competition.
‘There were a thousand people, but she chose me!’ he said with a wide grin as Makri playfully shook her head in response.
Science can also be the outcome of a partnership rather than its trigger. Metka Supej and Brina Poropat of Slovenia were brought together by sports, particularly rowing.
After years of training on the same team, they decided to research the impact of energy drinks on heart-rate recovery.
As they cheered for one another while preparing to say goodbye, the participants at EUCYS 2023 offered a glimpse of the combination of qualities – personal, intellectual, social and even professional – that turn young people into pioneering researchers.
Gozdur, the Polish top-prize winner, discovered his passion for judicial matters while working at a law firm. Before that, he wanted to study medicine and even dabbled in the film industry.
His EUCYS project drew on French and Polish criminal-procedure codes to examine the prospects for “restorative justice” – a central element of which is rehabilitation of the convict. The conclusion reached was that ‘penal populism is not beneficial to any party, especially to the victim’s,’ according to a description.
Now 19 years old and a law student in Warsaw, Gozdur said he would like international institutions to take up his work so that it influences ‘real-life’ legal norms in the future.
‘EUCYS showed me that my idea is actually relevant and that it may help societies,’ he said. ‘I would like to fight more for my project.’
For Sørensen, the Danish recipient of the top prize, venturing into rocket science as a teenager was no surprise. From the city of Odense, he began computer programming at the age of 10 and was inspired by his father – an electrical engineer – to look into engineering.
Now 19 years old, Sørensen is striving in his research to create cheaper rocket engines. His project, entitled “Development of small regeneratively cooled rocket propulsion systems”, demonstrated how small rocket engines can be cooled by using a fuel that is a mixture of ethanol and nitrous oxide.
Sørensen said he’s unsure what his future path will be while expressing interest in pursuing his rocket research.
‘I would like to continue working on this project,’ he said. ‘And I would like to do something that matters in the world.’
Chen, the top-award winner from Canada, has long had a passion for cancer research.
From childhood, she became involved in fundraisers for a Canadian cancer association and was puzzled about why significant donations had produced no cure. Now 17 years old and in high school, Chen is seeking a therapy that would avoid the often-considerable side effects of conventional treatments.
Her project focuses on a novel form of immunotherapy based on “CAR-T cells”, which are genetically altered so they can fight cancer more effectively.
‘I am really interested in going into university right away and then hopefully getting involved in some cancer research because that is just so interesting to me,’ said Chen, who comes from Edmonton.
The three Portuguese winners – Cerqueira, Nunes and Onofre – said they have developed a partnership as strong as their spider silk and plan to pursue their research while at university with the hope – one day – of conducting clinical studies.
Called “SPIDER-BACH2”, their project reflects an awareness that osteoporosis will become a growing health challenge worldwide as people live longer. It aims for in vitro production of bone-building cells known as osteoblasts.
‘The future is bright for us,’ said Nunes.
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.