Interview with 2007 winner Abdusalam Abubakar

Posted: August 24, 2009 in Former winner

Tell us about your favourite memories from BTYS & TE

January 2006 was my first experience of the BTYS&TE. I had arrived in Ireland just a few months previously. I hardly need to say that it was unlike anything that I had experienced before or had even imagined. I was a member of a group project with Nazmi Gendj and Saydom Tsegaburhan. We won first place in the Junior Group Mathematical, Physical and Chemical Sciences category. We invented two new algebras that extended the work of the greatest of all Irish mathematicians, William Rowan Hamilton. Indeed Hamilton is recognised worldwide as one of the greatest and most original mathematicians of all time. In the 1850’s Hamilton invented a new algebra which he called the Icosian Calculus. For many months we struggled without success to find new algebras similar to his. When we left Synge Street for the Christmas holidays in December 2005 we knew we were close. Thursday, the 29th of December 2005 is a day that I will always remember. We met in the school to review progress and very suddenly the missing ideas were totally clear. By late evening we had hand-written all of the proofs. We had little more than a week to spare. The dividing line between success and failure can sometimes be very thin indeed!

2006 was a very special year for Synge Street. There were seven projects from the school that year with twelve students participating. The camaraderie and sense of fun in that group was unforgettable. Between us we achieved second place overall, first place for group projects, two category first places and a category second place.

The opening and award ceremonies of the BTYS&TE possess a very special quality of excitement. The awards ceremony is long and the excitement builds up as it goes along.  I will always cherish the feeling that I had when I saw the whole auditorium (mostly my fellow exhibitors) cheering, clapping and standing up for me as I walked up to receive the Young Scientist of the Year Award in January 2007.

As winner of the BTYS&TE  2007 I was chosen to represent Ireland in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Valencia in September 2007, a great honour but also a great challenge.

Ireland has a wonderful record of achievement in international science competitions. Synge Street students have also achieved remarkable success in these competitions. Francis Wasser and Michael Mulhall won first place in the Physics category in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2005. My classmate, both in Synge Street and in St Benildus College, Ardit Kroni, was second in the Mathematics category at ISEF 2007 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Andrei Triffo, from Synge Street, won third place in the Mathematics category at ISEF 2009 in Reno, Nevada.

The trip to Valencia was a very memorable one. It was a great honour to win first place for Ireland. Sarah Flannery achieved this in 1999, also with a cryptography project. Sarah, and her wonderful book, In Code, was a huge inspiration for me throughout my project. When I began my cryptography project in June 2006 I wouldn’t have dared to dream that I could follow in her footsteps.

What do you think is the best thing about BTYS&TE?

It is an enormous challenge but its also good fun.

Facing up to the challenges involved in completing a project at the level required for the BTYS&TE demands persistence and the acquisition and perfection of many useful skills.


  • Get a good research idea. It certainly helps if there is a tradition of Young Scientist project entries in your school because high quality projects tend to suggest ideas for new projects. Get as much advice as possible.
  • Carry through the research to completion. When you are working on something which is genuinely new it can be quite difficult to be sure that there will be a successful outcome or how long it will take to achieve it.
  • Organise and type the report. Short, well-organised and well-written reports are more likely to be fully read and understood than long, rambling ones. Proofread your report very carefully.
  • Prepare attractive posters. They summarize your methods and your results. Make sure there are no mistakes in the posters. If there are any mistakes they are highly visible to the judges – the impact is certain to be a very negative one.
  • Talking to judges and public: it is a real challenge to come up with different ways of explaining the project to all age groups and backgrounds. How one speaks about the project to a judge who is an expert your field is quite different to how you speak to one who is not. It is the best training possible for interviews later in your career.


  • Meeting interesting people of your own age
  • Great social scene
  • Fantastic opening and awards ceremonies

Why should students get involved in BTYS&TE?

BTYS & TE encourages students to get involved in research. For example, at school the mathematics that we learn is old mathematics – calculus is more than 300 years old. Ideally in a YS project we investigate something that is completely new. This is a completely different experience from what you do at school – and a very valuable one.

How has winning changed your life?

Winning has changed my life a lot.

It was only a few months in Ireland when I became involved in the first project. I was BT Young Scientist of the Year less than 18 months after arriving in Ireland. I had no experience of anything remotely like the BTYS&TE up to then.

I have done TV interviews, been an invited speaker at a joint meeting of the Irish Mathematics Teachers Association and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and I have represented Ireland in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists.

It opened my mind to new ideas and inspirations and I have become even more aware of the importance of new research, both pure and applied.

My experience of the two BTYS&TE projects that I participated in while Synge Street has made me very conscious of the value of, and the need for, inspiring leadership. I have mentioned already that Sarah Flannery was a big influence on me. While in Synge Street, I saw how much Ronan Larkin’s success in 2004 encouraged further participation in the BTYS&TE. I was also very fortunate there to meet a truly inspiring science and mathematics teacher – Jim Cooke

What sort of things have you been doing since winning the BTYS&TE?


Even though my project had won the BTYS&TE I knew that many improvements were possible. I was determined to represent Ireland to the best of my ability. I spent January to early September preparing for the European Union Contest for Young Scientists. I was also preparing for the Junior Certificate.

Summer 2007 was particularly busy. There was a lot of very difficult computer programming to do. In the end this work was very successful. In September 2007 I won first place in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Valencia.

In September 2007 I changed schools, moving from Synge Street CBS to St Benildus College. Since then I have preoccupied with my studies for the Leaving Certificate.

Summer 2008:

In February 2007 I received an invitation from Professor Gary McGuire to visit the Claude Shannon Institute in UCD. As a result of this visit I became very interested in elliptic curve cryptography. During the summer of 2008 I spent a great deal of time, very enjoyably, learning a good deal of number theory and elliptic curve cryptography. I also became very interested in even newer cryptographic systems that have applications to smart cards and low power devices.

What advice can you give to students who are currently trying to come up with interesting project ideas?

I was lucky to be in Synge Street because a lot of interesting project ideas were generated by previous projects.

I can only speak with any certainty about mathematics projects. Some American websites give lists of possible projects for Science Fairs.

The titles and abstracts for all ISEF project entries in recent years are available online. It would very helpful if all Science Fairs did this because it would a great source of ideas about what topics are worth looking at and what standards are being achieved.

Many original research papers and preprints are available in various archives on the Web. Even if you can only understand a small fraction of the research papers you look at, you will become aware of interesting material and you may be able to find an approach that you are comfortable with.


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