A richly-illustrated digital essay imagining the future of energy through science fiction has won University College Cork student Ayomide Ajani the 2023 Mary Mulvihill Award.
The fourth year student studying microbiology is the first winner from UCC in the science media competition for third-level students commemorating the legacy of science journalist and author Mary Mulvihill, and wins a prize of €2,000.
Her entry highlights how literary considerations of energy have often reflected uncertainties surrounding the relationships between science, technology and society.
Ashik Prasad, a student at Trinity College Dublin, received the judges’ highly commended award.
Now in its seventh year, this year’s competition had energy at its theme; “that property to do work that is essential to sustain life on this planet”, or to examine it in the context of the global energy crisis as “over-consumption of fossil fuels is threatening the health of the planet and the ecosystems on which we rely”.
Submissions received from nine colleges across Ireland included essays on the evolution of photosynthetic bacteria and algae and their future role as potential energy sources; the potential role of anaerobic digestion in Ireland’s energy mix; the importance of myths in our relationship with energy; a report on a computer-based simulation of a wind turbine and a scripted audio piece in which two characters in a bar chatted about energy.
Energy is both a liberator and an oppressor, Ayomide observes. By powering industrial machinery, it has freed millions of industrial workers from exhausting and dangerous work and eased the burdens of domestic work, which has furthered economic empowerment of many women, she says.
Energy, however, is also a focus of exploitative economic and political relationships between the Global North and the Global South, she notes. “Clearly, energy access is critical to development, yet there is an enormous difference in the amount of energy used by the Earth’s richest and poorest.”
Science fiction can offer future perspectives on current issues – and not just by familiarising ourselves with future hypothetical technologies. By dramatising certain scenarios, it can serve to heighten our emotional responses to new possibilities, good and bad, she adds. “Dystopian themes are useful, because they allow us to consider the potential outcomes of our decisions.”
But most importantly, she concludes, science fiction “reminds us that the future is not fixed: we control the events in our story, and we have all the strategies we need to create a better, more sustainable world for everyone”.
“We’re so fixed on our current context that it’s hard to imagine a radically different energy future. This was a very compelling essay, with a strong visual element that made the argument for sci-fi as a means to imagining a radically more sustainable future,” said Prof Hannah Daly, a member of the judging panel.
From Midleton, Co Cork, Ayomide attended St Mary’s High School. She is interested in how video production, fiction, art and graphic design can be harnessed in science communication.
Ashik Prasad, who is studying biology and biomedical sciences, received his award for Golden Jellyfish and Solar Energy; an illustrated slide show for children on the symbiotic relationship between a mastigias jellyfish species, which inhabits a lake on an island in the Palau archipelago in the Indian Ocean, and a diverse group of photosynthetic algae known as zooxanthell. In return for providing their host with nutrients and energy, the algae gain a safe habitat and ready access to sunlight.
Born in Kerala, India, he moved to Ireland in early childhood. He went to primary school in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, before attending Dundalk Grammar School, and hopes eventually to study medicine.
“Ashik clearly considered his audience and came up with a colourful entry that was age-appropriate, charming and delightful,” Prof Daly noted.
Anne Mulvihill, a sister of Mary and judging panel member, said: “For Mary’s family and friends, the annual award is always a bittersweet event. However, as with all of the previous years, the judges were once again delighted with the variety of entries to the competition. And there is comfort in knowing that Mary would have been delighted to join with us all in celebrating the talent and enthusiasm of the two worthy winners.”
The awards ceremony on Wednesday was hosted by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and included the annual Science@Culture talk, reviving a name 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 Dr Niamh Shaw – engineer, scientist, writer and performer, considered the value artists can bring to space exploration and wider questions of our place in the universe. “Mary gave me my first job as a science communicator in 2008. And she continued to encourage and support me in my work as artist/writer. I owe her a great deal and it’s a privilege to speak at this event on a topic that brought us together all those years ago,” she said.
The other judges for the 2023 award were Karlin Lillington, Irish Times tech journalist and columnist and Nigel Monaghan, former keeper, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History.