‘Beautifully illustrated essay’ on intelligence of fungi by UL student wins 2024 Mary Mulvihill Award

Entry from Evanna Winters explores ‘wood wide web’, the subterranean fungal network that extends beneath forest floor

An “evocative, beautifully illustrated essay” on the intelligence mechanisms of fungi living on the forest floor has won University of Limerick student Evanna Winters the 2024 Mary Mulvihill Award.

The science media competition for third-level students commemorates the legacy of the late science journalist and author Mary Mulvihill and comes with a €2,000 prize. Róisín Ferguson, a student at Trinity College Dublin, received the judges’ highly commended award.

This year’s competition invited entries on the theme of intelligence, encompassing 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.

Entries reflected the wide-ranging nature of the topic, including photography, essays, videos, audio pieces and multimedia formats ranging across biological computing; AI, intelligence and genetics, and the ethical and ecological consequences of our narrow conceptualisation of intelligence.


Winters recently completed a BSc in bioscience and is the first winner from UL. Her entry – Walk in the Woods – explores 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 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, while some studies have found fungal electrical signalling resembles patterns of human speech.

Ferguson, a recent genetics graduate from 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 Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies on Thursday.

Dr Birhane, with her colleague Siobhán Grayson received a prize in 2018, 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 data sets 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 UN’s High Level Advisory Body on AI and of the Government’s AI Advisory Council.

“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,” Dr Birhane said.

“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,” said Anne Mulvihill, a sister of Mary and member of the judging panel.

The event included the annual Science@Culture talk, reviving a name Mary introduced in 1995 for an email bulletin (later a blog) that kept readers abreast of scientific activities and events.

Prof Mitchell, author of a number of popular science books on the brain, evolution and free will, gave a talk on “communicating complexity”. He considered the challenges of communicating complex topics to the general public in a way that engages without oversimplifying, and focused on the science and pseudoscience around autism as a particular example, examining its treatment in traditional media and the increasingly influential medium of podcasts.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times