At an age when many teens are taking courses to learn about ecology and biology, Sonja Michaluk is teaching them. At an age when many are just getting comfortable using highly technical devices needed for field research, Michaluk is inventing them.
The Hopewell Valley Central High School junior has developed curricula on herpetology (the study of amphibians) and macroinvertebrates (tiny creatures that live in streams) which she uses to teach kids (and adults) at environmental fairs. She has presented research to the Academy of Natural Sciences, the New York Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, among other places.
She has been the youngest member of the Society for Freshwater Science since she joined it in 2014. And Encyclopedia Britannica asked her to write the definition of the word “macroinvertebrate,” which they published in 2016.
In a ceremony held in Washington in September, she received the President’s Environmental Youth Award, an honor the Department of Environmental Protection gives out to recognize outstanding environmental projects undertaken by students in grades K–12. It’s just one of many awards that Michaluk has won for her scientific accomplishments. In the spring, she won grand prize at the Mercer County Science and Engineering Fair, and was a finalist for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair held in Pittsburgh.
At the ceremony for the President’s Environmental Youth Award, she spoke about the invention that has helped her garner many of these most recent awards. It’s a device that can be used by field researchers to preserve specimens collected in streams until they can be identified in a lab. This analysis is crucial to determining the ecological health of the streams and is used to aid researchers in developing conservation programs where they are most needed.
Her mother, Selina, says that after the ceremony, EPA staff were high fiving Michaluk and giving her feedback on her presentation. “People were saying, ‘You already do what we do,’” she says. “People were giving her their business cards and asking her to keep in touch.”
It’s no coincidence that Michaluk, 15, has developed a tool to aid in stream monitoring. She has been an active member of the StreamWatch volunteer water-quality monitoring program since 2011. It turns out that one of the best indicators of the overall health of a waterway is the diversity of the organisms found living in it. More variety is usually better. Less diversity could be indication that something, like pollution, is killing organisms off.
Analysts can use a process called DNA barcoding to identify the variety of creatures in a particular body of water. DNA barcoding is one of the most accurate methods for making critter IDs.
But there’s a catch. DNA barcoding requires organisms to have been pretty freshly collected. The older the specimen, the greater the chance that degradation that could render a sample useless. Even so, there are times when a short turnaround on sample analysis is not possible.
So, Michaluk took it upon herself to come up with a way to keep specimens alive longer. In a laboratory she has built in her basement largely with proceeds she has earned from other awards, she constructed a device out of recycled parts, including old VCRs, computers and printers that she hopes can do the job better than current solutions. She replaced the ethanol used in the traditional kit with carbon dioxide, which she says is a much better medium for preservation.
It took her between six and eight months to build, although she is by no means done developing it. She wants to improve the interface and look into the possibility of making it solar powered.
Selina Michaluk says her daughter’s precocious nature and insatiable curiosity were evident from a very young age. For one thing, she was able to not just talk, but also to have a conversation, before she was a year old. She was captivated by everything natural. “She really, from the youngest age, just had such a passion to understand everything,” Selina says.
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That passion and intelligence was evident to everyone who met her. Neighbors recommended to Selina, a project manager, and her husband Aaron, an engineer, that they take Sonja to a conference held by the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children. “She was like three, but she attended every lecture,” Selina says.
Later they took her for a meeting with the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a nonprofit organization that helps identify and develop opportunities for profoundly gifted children. Davidson accepted Michaluk into their program.
“I think the best advice they gave us was not to be afraid of her age,” Selina says. “If she was passionate about something, just let her do it.”
Michaluk’s parents took her to the Watershed Institute, then known as the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Foundation, where she could indulge her vast curiosity about the natural world. “They totally embraced her,” Selina says. “She was just so eager to do everything. They really inspired her and totally accepted her regardless of her age.”
Institute staff made Michaluk a part of their team. When she was certified as a water quality monitor, she was 8 years old. She began doing specimen collection and chemical analysis on her own time. Selina says over time she also built what was basically a nature center in the family’s yard.
“She started to attract neighborhood kids,” she says. “She’s always had a gift for that. Kids have always wanted to learn from her and be with her. They would come over to our house and go home with a tadpole.”
Eventually Michaluk moved her nature center down into the basement, where it has become her laboratory. “She’s always tinkering with things,” Selina says. “She was so proud when she got her first centrifuge, her first microscope — she just really takes a lot of pride in it. My biggest concern is really just that she’s safe.”
She uses money she earns from winning awards to build up her inventory, and also uses holidays and birthdays as opportunities to ask for things that she needs for the lab. But by now, Selina says, her reputation has grown to the point where she is known in the scientific community. Organizations like the Watershed Institute and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island donate items to her.
Erin Stretz, the assistant director of science and stewardship at the Watershed Institute, says that relationship goes both ways — and further illustrates both Michaluk’s scientific acumen and her ability to develop relationships. A few months back, she called up a Columbia University professor out of the blue and asked to to talk to her about salamanders. The pair struck up a relationship that has led Michaluk to develop a curriculum called “The Salamanders’ Dilemma: Stream Assessment as an Important Tool to Inform Decisions.”
Through the relationship with the Columbia professor, Michaluk gained access to tools at Columbia used for DNA sequencing, which she then offered to the Watershed Institute. “She finds all of these opportunities and just really lets them develop and doesn’t say no to anything,” Stretz says. “She’s always interested in what’s the next thing.”
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On a recent trip to Alaska, Michaluk went on a nature tour with her grandparents. People would ask questions, and she would answer every one correctly. “The tour person was like, ‘Are you from Alaska?’” Selina recounts. “She said, ‘No, I read books.’”
As she’s gotten older and more experienced, Michaluk’s research has become gradually less experimental and more purposeful. Her work with salamanders has to do with their endangered place in the world and her desire to educate people about it. In the spring, she was featured in a video the Watershed Institute produced advocating for environmental sensitivity in the development of oil and gas pipelines.
She says she likes to help communities better understand what is happening in their environment, so they can make more informed decisions. She would love to go into research science, working at a place like Cold Spring Harbor or the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Stretz says it has been amazing to watch Michaluk’s love of the natural world turn into what looks like an amazing future opening up before her.
“We have a lot of kids who come through the educational programs at the watershed,” Stretz says. “But Sonja, she is always seeking out more education, more volunteer opportunities, more teaching opportunities.”
Stretz knows what you might be thinking about an unusually ambitious kid. She says it’s absolutely not the case. “It’s not her parents pushing her,” she says. “She’s the one really pushing her parents. And they’re just really great in allowing her to take it where she wants.”
Nor is Sonja the only precocious one in the Michaluk family. Sister Charlotte, a seventh grader at Timberlane Middle School, is another inquisitive student and watershed volunteer. “She’s showing the same kind of awe at the most innocent things (as Sonja),” Stretz says. “It’s like every time Sonja sees a salamander in the stream it’s like it’s the first time. Her eyes light up. And I think Charlotte is the same way. She is very sharp as well.”
Michaluk says she has been fortunate to have a number of mentors who have influenced her and continue to influence her on her scientific journey. She mentions Stretz and Steve Tuorto from the Watershed Institute, as well as Patricia Shanley, a researcher who she says really steered her interests in environmental conservation.
She also cites some of her science teachers from the Hopewell Valley Regional School District, including Karen Lucci, Loreen Holstein and Kelli Iannacone. And another mentor figure is Teresita Bastides-Heron, of Sustainable Lawrence, who she says has been instrumental in helping her become more comfortable teaching both kids and adults.
When she’s not taking part in groundbreaking research or being recognized for important innovations, Michaluk has other interests that she also likes to pursue. She writes poetry and also takes pride in her original artwork. Not surprisingly, she likes to work with natural materials like sand pebbles and seaweed. Recently, she’s been making jewelry out of the cases left behind by the larva of the caddisfly. The larva use material from their environment to make the cases, and an artist can create unique designs by giving the larva different material to work with, including gold.
She also works with silicone, making works of art and other things. She once made a mermaid tail out of silicone, which could be worn over her legs like a prosthesis. “I’ve kind of outgrown it, but when I would wear it to the beach I would get the most interesting questions from little kids,” she says. “Like they’ll hand me seaweed and ask me if I want to eat it. One person asked me if I’ve ever been attacked by a shark. Most kids, I have learned, are more likely to listen to a supposed mermaid. So it’s a great way to get them to pay attention.”