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Young Scientist of the Year reaches for the stars with top astronomers


The 2015 UK Young Scientist of the Year will today (2 September 2015) enjoy an unforgettable personal tour of the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory, one of the best locations for astronomical observations in the world - a prize organised by Research Councils UK (RCUK).

Seventeen-year-old Sarah Sobka will have the chance to meet top astronomers and observe them at work on the world-famous William Herschel and Isaac Newton telescopes at the Observatory based in La Palma, Canary Islands.

Sarah Sobka and Colum McNallyIn the build up to her visit, Sarah said: "It was a massive shock when I was announced as the UK Young Scientist of the Year and I'm really looking forward to visiting the observatory. I have always been fascinated with space and observing what is beyond our minute planet, and when I was younger I would spend time pouring through my Dorling Kindersley Space Encyclopaedia. I am very grateful to Research Councils UK for organising this trip and providing eight-year-old Sarah with the chance to experience space research first-hand. It is going to be really exciting to learn more from the very best in the field!"

Sarah scooped the UK Young Scientist of the Year award for her project which investigated how a drug called Lubiprostone may help sufferers of cystic fibrosis by examining the mechanisms by which the drug works in human bronchial cells. The research aims to help develop new, less costly drugs that work on a wider range of the genetic mutations associated with the disease.

Another National Science + Engineering Competition award presented at the Big Bang Fair was the UK Young Engineer of the Year, which was won by Colum McNally for designing and building a safe and low-cost hydraulically-operated agricultural machine that can provide log-splitting and fence building functions.

Maria Thankachan won the RCUK-sponsored ‘Best Use of Research Prize’ for her project on the Deltex-2 gene, thought to be involved in autism spectrum disorders. As part of her prize, Maria visited Babraham Institute in Cambridge, where she was given a personal tour by Dr Sarah Elderkin from the Institute’s Nuclear Dynamics programme and even got stuck-in to some laboratory work of her own (find out more about Maria’s visit here).

Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson said: “We need more young scientists and engineers to make the breakthrough discoveries of tomorrow, and competitions like this play a vital role in inspiring the next generation of talent.  I congratulate the winners on their achievements and wish them every success for their future careers.”

Jenni Chambers, Head of Public Engagement at RCUK, added: “All three winners have clearly demonstrated the attributes required to excel in research and it is a privilege to provide these talented youngsters with the opportunity to experience these prestigious institutes and cutting-edge research first-hand. It is essential that we continue to incentivise and encourage the development of young researchers in this country in order to support the future research base that is so critical to the UK economy”.

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Further information

Katie Clark
Tel: 01793 444387 or email: Katie Clark

Notes to editors

  1. Photographs available on request.

  2. The Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING), based at the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory, is co-owned and co-funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO) of the Netherlands, and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in Spain. STFC also funds substantial research taking place at the ING and recent projects have included research, which can help reveal the chemical makeup of a small rocky world orbiting a distant star about 1,500 light years away from Earth, increasing our understanding of how planets, including ours, were formed.

  3. Both Sarah Sobka and Maria Thankachan conducted their projects through the Nuffield Research Placements (NRPs) scheme, which receives funding from RCUK and other partners. NRPs provide over 1,000 students each year with the opportunity to work alongside professional scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians during four to six-week placements. 

  4. The National Science + Engineering Competition is open to all 11-18 year olds living in the UK and in full-time education. The Competition aims to recognise and reward young people's achievements in all areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The Competition is open for entries from Jan - October each year, through either heats at selected Big Bang Near Me Fairs or online heats. The chosen Finalists will be invited to showcase their work to thousands of people at The Big Bang Fair, which usually runs in March.

  5. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is the strategic partnership of the UK’s seven Research Councils. Our collective ambition is to ensure the UK remains the best place in the world to do research, innovate and grow business. The Research Councils are central to delivering research and innovation for economic growth and societal impact. Together, we invest £3 billion in research each year, covering all disciplines and sectors, to meet tomorrow’s challenges today. Our investments create new knowledge through: funding research excellence; responding to society’s challenges; developing skills, leadership and infrastructure; and leading the UK’s research direction. We drive innovation through: creating environments and brokering partnerships; co-delivering research and innovation with over 2,500 businesses, 1,000 of which are SMEs; and providing intelligence for policy making. Find out more about our work at

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