UL student wins Mary Mulvihill Award for fungal networks essay

The winner’s essay explored the subterranean fungal network that extends beneath the forest floor.

Evanna Winters, has become the first student from University of Limerick (UL) to be named the overall winner of the Mary Mulvihill Award, with Trinity College Dublin student, Róisín Ferguson, securing the judges’ highly commended award. 

The event, which is in its eighth year and in honour of the late science journalist and author Mary Mulvihill, was held today (23 May) at a ceremony hosted by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Winters, who is originally from Castlebar, Co Mayo, and has recently completed her bachelor of science degree in bio-science, wrote an illustrated essay on the theme of intelligence, entitled ‘A Walk in the Woods’.

Her work explored the subterranean fungal network that extends beneath the forest floor and how this extensive system exhibits a vital form of interconnectivity and communication, challenging our conventional understanding of intelligence. In reference to her essay, Winters said that despite not having a central nervous system or a brain, “fungi display their intelligence through their vast mycelial networks, signalling patterns and their symbiotic relationships”.

At a microscopic level, she notes, mycelia “not only look like the neurons of a human brain, they act like them too”.

Dubliner Róisín Ferguson, who has just completed a degree in genetics, used the concept of the brainless scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz to explore the concepts of intelligence and cognition along with the relationship of both to the brain and to more rudimentary information processing systems in “aneural organisms” such as worms, plants and microbes, which do not possess a brain. 

This year’s theme of intelligence encompassed the “cognitive abilities that humans and other living beings possess and the rapidly developing field of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which combines great promise across many different areas of innovation with great threat”.

As well as continuing Mary Mulvihill’s legacy, the competition was established to encourage third-level students to embrace science communication and foster their creativity. First place awards the winner with €2,000 while the winner of the highly commended award receives €500.

Guest speaker Prof Kevin Mitchell, author of a number of acclaimed popular science books on the brain, evolution and free will, gave a talk discussing the challenges of communicating complex topics, such as autism, without oversimplifying for your audience.

Speaking on the event, Mulvihill ’s sister Anne Mulvihill expressed her admiration for the two talented young women, both of whom she said her sister would have “loved to meet and chat with”. 

“To echo previous years, there is a comfort for her family and friends in knowing that she would have been chuffed to join us here this evening to celebrate this year’s winners and their entries,” she said.

Find out how emerging tech trends are transforming tomorrow with our new podcast, Future Human: The Series. Listen now on Spotify, on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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