Meetings with Remarkable Men & Women: Ciara Judge

Meetings with Remarkable Men & Women: Ciara JudgeThe moments that change one’s life do not always appear to be particularly consequential. In fact, they can often seem so small they pass as insignificant when looked at in the context of the bigger picture. In some cases, these harbingers of what’s to come can be as small as a goldfish.

Such is the case for Ciara Judge, winner of the 2014 Google Science Fair and named as one of that year’s 25 most influential teenagers by TIME Magazine. Ciara joined Laurel Springs students and faculty as the presenter at June’s Meetings with Remarkable Men & Women Symposium, offering attendees a valuable glimpse into how she transitioned from a mild-mannered student living in a small fishing village in Cork County, Ireland, to an internationally recognized visionary known for a discovery that has the potential to impact lives all over the globe.

To think, it all started with a goldfish.

A Fateful Meeting

A fascination with science is not uncommon in the Judge family. Ciara’s life-altering meeting with a goldfish occurred while attending Ireland’s BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in support of her older brother.

However, a five-year-old Ciara’s perception of the world of science involved visions of wild-haired scientists resembling Albert Einstein in laboratories mixing beakers filled with chemicals and causing grand explosions. Instead, a young girl’s love of animals of all species had her longing to become a veterinarian or zoologist.

This affinity for animals drew her to the booth adjacent to her brother’s science project. Here, three female students were displaying a science project centered around a very fishy subject. The girls, attempting to dispel the commonly accepted premise that a goldfish’s memory is limited to only about three seconds, had the focus of their study housed in a fish tank, which immediately captivated Ciara for hours.

It was in this moment she understood that science could pertain to many different things.

The Eureka Moment

A decade after her fateful meeting with a goldfish, Ciara decided to follow in her brother’s footsteps and entered the country’s national science fair, but it wasn’t solely to fulfill a family tradition. Instead, what inspired Ciara and friends Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow to act was what she describes as a “eureka moment,” a figurative explosion brought about by the perfect mix of “chemicals,” in this case two separate circumstances.

The first took place in Emer’s backyard while gardening with her mother. Pulling up pea plants in the family garden, Emer presumed them diseased after noticing they featured wart-like nodules. In science class, the teens learned that the plants were not victims of disease, the nodules were caused by a naturally occurring bacteria known as Rhizobium, which affects legume plants.

On its own, this discovery may not have spurred Ciara into action, as she noted, “At 14 years old, I didn’t like the idea of having more peas on my plate.” Luckily, around this time, Ciara was learning how a global food crisis will require 50% more food to feed global citizens by 2050.

Armed with compassion and the idea that if the science that helped peas to grow could be applied to crops like wheat, oats, barley, and others that play a larger role in one’s diet, food production could increase. Although conventional wisdom and research of the time dictated that Ciara’s theory was without merit, the teens took a chance and got to work.

DIY Science

Living in a small fishing village in Cork County, Ireland, Ciara and her friends did not have access to the high-tech resources and state-of-the-art facilities that one might think necessary to conduct a plant germination experiment that would yield such amazing results. However, that would be underestimating the conviction and wherewithal often inherent in youth.

The teens got creative, converting a spare bedroom into a lab, using polystyrene fishing boxes to house seeds, and turning light bulbs and thermostats into incubators to “DIY their way into science.”

They worked tirelessly, taking readings of the seeds every six hours (each reading taking two hours to complete). After finding success in the bedroom lab, the research continued in Ciara’s backyard, where they discovered that treating seeds with Rhizobium could increase a year’s worth of crops by as much as 74%.

Household Names

After conquering both the national science fair and its European Union counterpart in 2013, Ciara and her friends won the 2014 Google Science Fair and were immediately catapulted to worldwide recognition. They began traveling the globe to speak at conferences and, recognizing their findings were just the first step in the quest to eliminate world hunger, founded Germinaid Innovations to continue their research.

Ciara has also realized the importance of empowering and assisting young people who are motivated to create positive change, so she helped organize Project Zilkr, a teen-run non-profit aimed at inspiring a new generation of socially aware initiatives.

Now in her second year at University College Cork, Ireland, Ciara is pursuing a career in genetics and is spending this summer in her home country for the first time in four years.

Concluding her presentation, Ciara reminded Laurel Springs students of three things:

  1. As stewards here on Earth, they have a responsibility to correct the serious issues affecting the planet;
  2. They need not wait for adulthood to get started, as they’re perfectly capable of changing the world now; and perhaps most importantly
  3. Keep an eye out for your goldfish.

Past Meetings with Remarkable Men and Women

Interested in learning more about our Meetings with Remarkable Men and Women Symposia? Check out prior event recaps, featuring guest speakers:

Dr. Christopher Bell
Richard Guerry
Dr. Bob Seney
Jenna Lincoln