News and Views
Long read: From Kinsale to Kenya
By Graham Clifford
The library lights illuminate her face on a dark and dreary winter’s afternoon.
Diminutive in stature and soft in spoken tone Sophie Healy-Thow, Food Security campaigner, former winner of BT Young Scientist of the Year and one of the most influential teens on the planet according to Time magazine, is also a first-year UCC student finding her way at the start of the second semester.
For now she’s happy to blend in rather than stand out. We walk through the rain until we find shelter and grab a hot brew. Sophie’s on the tea.
With her two hands clasped around her paper cup Sophie explains that these last few years have propelled her into the spotlight when for so long she was happy to fill a less high profile role.
“In secondary school I was incredibly shy. Then we won the BT Young Scientist of the Year award and suddenly I found myself on the front of national newspapers. I was in a completely new world with different people around me. I found myself sitting in conferences alongside amazing speakers and had to learn quickly. I’m still learning. Undoubtedly it's been scary at times but so interesting.”
It’s five years now since Sophie and two fellow students at Kinsale Community School, Ciara Judge and Emer Hickey, were crowned the overall winners at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition for their ground-breaking project which examined how natural bacteria could be used to increase crop output.
The project later went on to win the top prize at the Google Science Fair in San Francisco and the Irish trio made Time magazine's Most Influential Teens list.
Their research showed that if Diazotroph, a naturally occurring bacteria in soil, is present it accelerates the germination process of high-value crops such as barley and oats, potentially boosting output by up to 50 percent.
The findings were extraordinary and sent positive shockwaves throughout the world of agricultural science. Could this be the most effective way yet of combating food insecurity?
Sophie explained the obvious benefits and a desire to use the discovery towards further research: “Plants grow on day three rather than day seven and there are more of them as less die. I would like to research how the different seeds coated with bacteria impact different soil types. Some questions which could be easily answered if funds and technology allowed.”
Just months before winning the BT Young Scientist competition Sophie admits to being in the dark about the whole area of world food shortages or the fact that by 2050, at current rates, there will statistically not be enough food to feed the world's population.
“It was during a geography class in school that the teacher started focusing on the Horn of Africa and looking at their depleting staple foods and the impact of climate change. I remember wondering why I’d never heard about this and the ever-growing world food shortage before.”
She continues: “I, like everyone else, had seen the television adverts with starving children in Africa. I suppose I’d become accustomed to them and I never thought too much about the reasons for such humanitarian turmoil. I remember there was a ‘wow moment’ when I understood food shortage properly, when I really got it. I felt shocked. Then I started to ask about Ireland’s role in this and look at what we were doing to help. I couldn’t quite understand why this wasn’t more of an issue.”
Questioning was, and is, part of Sophie’s makeup which her mother identified in her eldest daughter at a young age.
“I would ask so many questions about everything that eventually my mom ended up buying me these ‘Why, What, When’ books,” explains Sophie with a smile.
She recalls the rollercoaster of events, award ceremonies, conferences, innovations, addresses to politicians in Westminster and areas of research which took her from that geography class in Kinsale to this café at UCC and to her degree course in International Development and Food Policy.
She’s spoken at the United Nations in New York about food insecurity, designed an app with a friend which they called ‘Hungry Heroes’ which helps young people, aged seven to 14, better understand food security using fun games to educate. In addition, Sophie became a board trustee of ActionAid UK and travelled to Rwanda last year to see for herself the challenges faced by people living in nations where food shortage is at a particularly severe level.
Interweaving life, studies, exams and the normal challenges facing any student moving from second to third level Sophie was also quietly learning, observing and writing about issues which have become so close to her heart.
And it wasn’t just in relation to food policy but gender inequality too as well as how consumers in the West treat their environment and each other.
For her, Pandora’s box hadn’t so much been opened as had its cover blown off the hinges.
As part of her meteoric rise Sophie was asked to give a TEDx Talk in Dublin on Food Policy. It was particularly well-received and viewed by huge numbers across the globe. Before meeting her I watched it and was struck by how composed and assertive she came across in front of the camera. And so I was intrigued to learn that she had never watched it back herself.
“Oh no, I couldn’t. I was so nervous. Speaking out like that was not something I was used to.”
She tells me that in a world filled with noise, bluff and bluster she believes those who are calm and collected in what they say are often the ones to listen to. Her observations are timely.
She told me: “People think that when you’re involved in these kinds of things that you’re a leader. I often think they envisage me to be like a tour guide at the top of the group, holding the umbrella, shouting ‘hey follow me’…but I see myself as the person at the back of the group pushing and encouraging people forward.
I’ve met a lot of people who are loud leaders but I like being at the back. Seeing qualities in other people and pushing them forward is my way of doing things. I don’t think you need to be loud to get attention or to get your ideas across. People will listen if you have something interesting to say. You could have the loudest voice in the room but not be making a difference. And I guess that’s true of world politics right now.”
Last year Sophie became the only Irish representative to attend the European Youth Ag Summit in Brussels and in a truly international team of ten she helped develop Agrikua - an online social enterprise aimed at helping women in agriculture in developing countries. The idea won the top prize of €10,000 and the team is working to develop the online platform.
“Women in rural areas make up the highest percentage of farmers in developing countries such as Kenya. We want to teach them about agricultural business opportunities, techniques, agricultural grants, and scholarships. We believe by empowering women in rural areas we can assist food security there,” explains Sophie.
Now every two weeks she and her colleagues from eight other countries, including India, Russia, Congo, Canada and Kenya itself, hold conference calls to discuss how they will move the project forward.
“That’s one of my main aims in 2018 to help design our online platform and make it a reality.”
I suggest to Sophie that an added benefit to this International collaboration will be an endless stream of welcoming holiday venues.
“Yes, there are so many couches across the world on which I can lay my head when I do get the chance to travel,” she tells me.
On the Quercus Talented Students' Programme at UCC Sophie explains how the scholarship scheme has enabled her to focus.
“As well as the bursary we also have our campus accommodation and a community of young people who are doing some pretty amazing things across a wide and diverse range of sectors. Also, some amazing guest speakers have been brought in to talk to us. Recently we had someone explaining how best to use the media to get positive coverage for your campaign or initiative which I found particularly useful.”
With 28 students in her International Development and Food Policy programme Sophie feels the course is a natural fit for her and she couldn’t believe her luck when she discovered it at undergraduate level on her doorstep.
“I looked around Ireland, Britain and even America and couldn’t find a course so appropriate. There were some postgraduate courses but nothing like this at undergraduate level. I’ve such a lot to learn but feel here at UCC the programme is preparing me to continue to spread the word about the dangers of food shortage and about what we can do to play our part in protecting our environment and food sources. I really believe Ireland should be leading the way on issues such as Climate Change but given the levels of CO2 we’re emitting we certainly have a long way to go.”
Outside the window the rain is no longer bashing the saturated grass. Its loud barrage replaced by a much more tolerable pitter patter. As if Mother Nature herself is confirming Sophie’s point that gentle persistence is mightier than the noisy downpour.
She quietly disappears into the Cork evening to think, observe and listen.
Sophie Healy-Throw is a UCC Quercus Active Citizenship Scholar.
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