Lithuanian Laurynas Pliuškys hopes that the research he is doing could help find a cure for arthritis, and it’s thanks to Europe’s young scientist award that has been giving researchers the confidence to take up careers in science for a quarter of a century.
‘The prize proved to me that I can actually achieve scientific results that are recognised by other people,’ said Pliuškys, now 26. ‘It gives me this reassurance that what I do is actually interesting to people, it’s important and it has scientific value.’
Winning third prize in 2004 at the EU Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) helped him secure a place at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and now’s he’s working on technology that could help find a cure for arthritis as part of his PhD at the University of Oxford.
‘We are trying to tackle the basis of the disease rather than the symptoms,’ he said. ‘It’s like the next generation of drugs.’
2 451 contestants, 595 prizes
From 20 to 25 September, EUCYS celebrates a quarter of a century of inspiring young scientists at its 2013 contest in Prague. EUCYS 2013 involves 126 contestants from all over Europe who will present a total of 85 different projects to a jury of independent scientific experts.
The idea behind EUCYS is to give researchers the chance to make lasting friendships with other talented young scientists. That's something which has benefited 23-year-old aeronautical engineer André Wilmes, from Luxembourg, whose trips around Europe have enabled him to stay in touch with the other contestants he met when he won an award in Copenhagen in 2008. 'The single most impressive and valuable aspect of EUCYS was the possibility to meet and connect with passionate scientists from around the world,' said Wilmes.
‘The prize proved to me that I can actually achieve scientific results that are recognised by other people.’
Laurynas Pliuškys, University of Oxford
The competition started in 1989 after the then European Commission President Jacques Delors decided to take over a Europe-wide science fair that Dutch electronics firm Royal Philips had been running since 1968. The European Commission launched the contest in Brussels with the aim of promoting cooperation and exchange between young researchers, and giving them the chance to discuss their work with some of the world's leading scientists. Since then it’s given a generation of researchers the confidence to pursue careers in science.
That includes 22-year-old Estonian Kristina Aare, who hopes to help understand the mechanisms of cancer drug resistance after winning first prize in 2009, and French mathematician Yann Ollivier, 34, who is working on artificial intelligence at France’s prestigious National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) after winning first prize in 1996.
In total, 2 451 young researchers have taken part, almost a third of whom are women, and 595 prizes have been handed out at ceremonies held across Europe, from Seville to Helsinki, from Porto to Moscow.
Last year, EUCYS was held in Bratislava, Slovakia, when, as well as the top three winners from Ireland, Poland and Austria, 22-year-old Greek Charalampos Ioannou won a prize for inventing an exoskeletal glove to help his elderly grandmother grasp fiddly objects.
Laurynas Pliuškys, a 2004 EUCYS prize winner, now a researcher at the University of Oxford. © Kelly Rooke
‘Winning such a high-level competition is a huge psychological reward because you feel that your efforts have been recognised,’ said Ioannou, who is now talking to companies about mass producing his invention.
In order to take part, contestants must have won first prize in their own country’s national competition, making this international contest one of the toughest competitions for young scientists in the world.
While the up to EUR 7 000 prize money can help young scientists further their careers, it’s also the recognition associated with winning at EUCYS that makes a difference.
Dr Anastasia Efimenko even gained celebrity status in her native Russia after coming first in 2000 in Amsterdam for her project on child mortality. That year, Russian scientist Zhores Alferov had won the Nobel Prize, and the dual win meant Dr Efimenko became a popular media personality.
‘It was my first experience participating in an international scientific event and its influence on my life was essential,’ said the 34-year-old.
Young researchers need to have passion to win at EUCYS, like Justyna Słowiak, who even as a high school student was giving lessons to schoolchildren on dinosaurs. After winning second prize in 2010 in Lisbon for a project looking at the Triassic period, the Pole is now delivering lectures to university students on the subject.
Bulgarian Vassilina Tatarlieva, 21, had to learn how to program data processing tools in her spare time as part of her project using digital cameras to ascertain temperature. ‘The data processing required me to write a simple program in MATLAB, which eventually led me to pursue a career in IT,’ she said.
Whether it is working as a computer programmer, commercialising an invention, or getting a coveted place at a top university, EUCYS is a way for talented young people to get the confidence they need to achieve their career aspirations.
‘It’s very important to keep your mind open and to keep dreaming about what you want to achieve in the future,’ said Pliuškys. ‘I remember, three years ago, I wondered how wonderful it would be to study at the University of Oxford, and there we go, here I am.’
Open science should mean that citizens have the chance to put questions to scientists and have a say on the kind of innovations that are being funded, according to Professor Alan Irwin from the Copenhagen Business School.
Curiosity, creativity and tenacity are three vital qualities for young scientists, says 18-year-old Lithuanian Matas Navickas, who won third prize at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in September for his work creating a flowering apple tree in a test tube.
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She has won the 2015 Körber European Science Prize for her work in creating new materials that respond to both electric and magnetic fields.