Evanna Winters, UL, wins €2,000 top prize in science media competition

Róisín Ferguson, TCD, receives €500 judges’ highly commended award

‘Intelligence’ the theme of the 2024 Mary Mulvihill Award


DUBLIN, 23 May, 2024—University of Limerick student Evanna Winters is the 2024 winner of the
€2,000 Mary Mulvihill Award, the science media competition for third-level students that
commemorates the legacy of science journalist and author Mary Mulvihill (1959–2015).
Róisín Ferguson, a student at Trinity College Dublin, received the judges’ highly commended award,
which includes a cash prize of €500.
Now in its eighth year, this year’s competition invited entries on the theme of ‘Intelligence’, which
encompasses both 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 is customary, students were encouraged to address the topic in scientific or imaginative terms, and
in any format. The submissions received reflected the wide-ranging nature of the topic. They included
photography, essays, videos, audio pieces, and combinations of several formats. The areas covered
included biological computing, AI, intelligence and genetics, and the ethical and ecological
consequences of our narrow conceptualisation of intelligence.
Evanna Winters, who has just completed a B.Sc. in Bioscience, is the competition’s first winner from
the University of Limerick. She won the top prize for an evocative, beautifully illustrated essay, ‘A
Walk in the Woods’. It explores the workings of the ‘wood wide web’, the subterranean fungal
network that extends beneath the forest floor. This extensive system exhibits a vital form of
interconnectivity and communication, which challenges our conventional understanding of
intelligence. “Despite not having a central nervous system or brain,” she writes, “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”. To communicate, they send electrical impulses and electrolytes through
the network; and some studies have found that fungal electrical signalling resembles patterns of
human speech.
Róisín Ferguson, who has just completed a degree in genetics in TCD, took the ostensibly brainless
scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz as the starting point for an ambitious exploration of the related
concepts of intelligence and cognition—and 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. Her entry comprised an audio essay and a recorded interview
with Dr. Kevin Mitchell, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Genetics at TCD.
Dr. Abeba Birhane, Senior Fellow in Trustworthy AI at the Mozilla Foundation and Adjunct
Professor in the School of Computer Science, TCD, presented the awards at a ceremony hosted by the
Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Dr. Birhane herself (with her colleague Siobhán Grayson)
received a prize in 2018, in the second year of the competition, while she was a PhD student in UCD.
Since then, she has become an internationally recognised researcher of the ethical and societal
implications of AI and machine learning technologies, including audits and evaluations of large scale
datasets and models exposing hate, racism and misogyny encoded within these systems. She was
named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in AI last year and is a member of the
United Nations’ High Level Advisory Body on AI and of the government’s AI Advisory Council.
Dr. Birhane said: “Deciphering AI hype and misleading claims from what is realistic has become a
major problem, a problem whose best remedy is public education and reliable science communication.
I’m grateful this initiative continues to keep the legacy of Mary Mulvihill and encourages and rewards
important science communication work.”
Anne Mulvihill, a sister of Mary and a member of the judging panel, said: “Once again, we are all
delighted to have two winning entries that Mary would have been excited to read, and two winners
that she would have loved to meet and chat with. And 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.”

The event also included the now annual Science@Culture talk, reviving a name that Mary had
introduced in 1995 for an email bulletin (later a blog) that kept readers abreast of a vast range of
scientific activities and events. Guest speaker Prof. Kevin Mitchell, who is author of a number of
acclaimed popular science books on the brain, evolution, and free will, gave a talk entitled
“Communicating Complexity”. In his talk, Prof. Mitchell discussed the challenges of communicating
complex topics to the general public in a way that engages without oversimplifying. He discussed the
science and pseudoscience around autism as a particular example, examining its treatment in
traditional media and the increasingly influential medium of podcasts.

The judges for the Mary Mulvihill Award 2024 were:

Abeba Birhane, Senior Fellow in Trustworthy AI at the Mozilla Foundation and Adjunct Professor in
the School of Computer Science, TCD
Karlin Lillington, Irish Times tech journalist & columnist
Anne Mulvihill, Sister of Mary Mulvihill

Evanna Winters – Bio
From Castlebar, County Mayo, Evanna Winters is graduating this year from the University of
Limerick’s B.Sc. Bioscience programme. Her degree-year research project involved the development
of a cellular model for studying the role of NF kappa B, an important immune signalling molecule, in
the gynaecological condition endometriosis. This is her second time entering the Mary Mulvihill

Róisín Ferguson – Bio
TCD student Róisín Ferguson, who is from Dublin, has just completed a degree in genetics. Her
degree project involved the genetic analysis of DNA isolated from the teeth of mesolithic settlers that
were found at the Killuragh archaeological site in County Limerick. A regular contributor to Trinity
News, she was also nominated for the 2024 SFI Award for Journalism relating to Science &
Technology, as part of the National Student Media Awards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *