2015 Young Naturalist Awards and Their Projects




Can hurricane activity be accurately predicted for Long Island? How smart is the average goldfish? What’s the best way to fight a deadly fungus that is killing off amphibians throughout the world? Do mango skins make for an effective defense against citrus plant disease? These are some of the questions that 12 student scientist winners explored through the American Museum of Natural History’s 18th Annual Young Naturalist Awards, a nationwide science-based research and essay competition for students in grades 7 through 12.  This is the only national science competition that focuses on the natural world and encourages research in Earth science, ecology, astronomy, and biology, part of the Museum’s broader aim to focus on authentic science experiences that increase students’ participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The Young Naturalist Awardsis a program of the National Center for Science Literacy, Education and Technology (NCSLET), part of the Museum’s Department of Education. Founded in 1997, NCSLET taps the Museum’s unparalleled scientific resources—a vast physical collection, cutting-edge research, and dynamic and engaging exhibitions—and makes them available to a global audience through the creation of online resources, such as the award-winning Seminars on Science and OLogy. The Young Naturalist Awards program was developed by the Museum to promote young people’s active observation of the natural world and to recognize excellence in biology, ecology, Earth science, and astronomy.

“The winners of the Young Naturalist Awards demonstrate a true passion for science research and communication and are exemplars for what young people are capable of,” said Dr. Rosamond Kinzler, senior director for science education and director of NCSLET. “Whether these young students studied the phytoplankton levels in a local lake in North Carolina or investigated scavengers on the Serengeti in Kenya, their essays reveal the same dedication to the practice of science as our Museum scientists demonstrate. The Museum is committed to inspiring and supporting young people like this year’s winners in their quest to use the scientific process to learn more about the world around them.”

The Museum will also present the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Award to the student whose investigation demonstrates close observation, thoughtful analysis, and deep appreciation of the biodiversity, ecology, and habitats found in an urban environment. The winning essay was selected from the pool of Young Naturalist Awards entrants and was evaluated according to the same criteria.

This year’s winners, including students from California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, and North Carolina, were recognized today at an all-day event at the Museum, which included a behind-the-scenes tour, an awards ceremony, and a luncheon. Winners also received cash awards ranging from $500 to $2500.

The 2015 winners are:

Grade 7

  • Manashree Padiyath, Math and Science Academy, Woodbury, Minnesota
    • Investigated whether biochar amendments could improve poor quality soil conditions under her family’s evergreen tree.
  • Jonathan Simak, Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology, Rockville, Maryland
    • Researched how changes in water temperature, water acidity, and size/age differences would affect the respiratory rates of the brown bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosus).

Grade 8

  • Ashley Anderson, Adams Middle School, Redondo Beach, California
    • Found that low dissolved oxygen levels in King Harbor could be the cause ofmassive fish die-offs.
  • Kacey Mewborn, Lakeland Christian School, Lakeland, Florida
    • Tested a natural oil found in the skin of mangoes to combat an invasive insect

Grade 9

  • Katie Sesi, Huron High School, Ann Arbor, Michigan
    • Studied long-term memory and learning in goldfish using mazes
  • William Blanton, Tuscumbia High School, Tuscumbia, Missouri
    • Discovered calcifying bacteria on speleothems found in a natural cave and on artificial surfaces

Grade 10

  • Katherine Handler, Amity Regional High School, Woodbridge, Connecticut
    • Investigated scavenger activity on wildebeest carcasses in Kenya
  • Zachary Weishampel, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Award Winne
     Paul J. Hagerty High School, Oviedo, Florida
  • Studied the effects of light pollution on the nesting behaviors of three sea turtle species in Florida

Grade 11

  • Anne Davis, Stanford University Online High School, Swan Quarter, North Carolina
    • Researched how changes in nitrogen and phosphorus levels might affect phytoplankton concentration in Lake Mattamuskeet
  • Soon Il Higashino, Ossining High School, Ossining, New York
    • Identified beneficial cutaneous bacteria on Eastern redback salamanders that inhibited Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a chytrid fungus associated with amphibian decline.

Grade 12

  • Beatrice Brown, John F. Kennedy High School, Bellmore, New York
    • Developed a novel model for predicting hurricanes on Long Island
  • Lilith South, Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology, Conyers, Georgia
    • Found that the bacteria Lactobacillus hammesii (which prevents mold growth on bread) provided the best protection against a deadly chytrid fungus killing amphibians

Judges from the Museum’s scientific, educational, and editorial staff used the following criteria to evaluate student essays: originality; demonstration of ability to gather data; thoughtfulness in analyzing and interpreting findings; and creativity and clarity in written and visual presentation. The winning entries will be published on the Museum’s website at http://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/young-naturalist-awards.

The awards ceremony featured remarks by Dr. Dave Randle, a senior educator in the Department of Education, and Christopher Raxworthy, associate curator in the Department of Herpetology and associate dean of science for education and exhibitions. Dr. Raxworthy spoke to the 12 young winners about his own journey to become a scientist and about the parallels between their fieldwork and original research conducted at the Museum.

Following are summaries of the winning projects with brief excerpts:

Manashree Padiyath
Age 13, Grade 7
Math and Science Academy
Woodbury, Minnesota
Greening Under the Evergreens: A Biochar Soil Amendment Study
Noticing that nothing seemed to grow under the evergreens in her family’s backyard, Manashree wondered if the soil fertility could be improved with the addition of biochar—biomass (wood, leaves, or grasses) heated to the point of thermal decomposition. She planted mung bean seeds in three well trays filled with soil from her backyard that were amended with four different varieties of biochar at 3 volume levels (10%, 5%, and 1%). Contrary to her hypothesis, Manashree discovered that the biochar amendments did not improve plant growth in the soil from under the evergreens.
 “The soil pH was largely unaltered with the addition of biochar. I had thought the soil would be more acidic, due to the pine needles. However, this wasn’t the case and the addition of biochar did not have a significant effect on the pH.”  

Jonathan Simak
Age 12, Grade 7

Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology
Rockville, Maryland
The Effect of Water Temperature, Water Acidity, and Animal Age/Body Size in the Opercular Respiratory Rate of Brown Bullhead Catfish 

Jonathan wondered how changes in water temperature, water acidity, and size/age differences would affect the opercular respiratory rates (ORR) of the brown bullhead catfish (Ameiurus nebulosus). The operculum is a bony plate that covers the fish’s gills. By watching the operculum move, he could measure the ORR. Testing three brown bullhead catfish that he kept at home in a 55-gallon aquarium over three years, Jonathan confirmed his hypothesis that higher water temperatures and high water acidity induced increased ORR. He also found that ORR decreased as the catfish grew older and larger.
“My fascination for catfish started many years ago during my first nature science camp. When I first glimpsed a majestic catfish elegantly gliding under a big limestone rock in Rock Creek in Maryland, I decided I want to learn everything about these fascinating creatures.”  

Ashley Anderson
Age 14, Grade 8

Adams Middle School
Redondo Beach, California

Harboring a Problem with Dissolved Oxygen Levels
When millions of sardines died in a massive fish kill in King Harbor, California, on March 8, 2011, Ashley sought to find the cause. Through her research she discovered that oxygen levels were vitally important indicators for healthy aquatic habitats and that low oxygen levels can lead to massive fish die-offs.  Ashley, traveling by kayak, tested 32 sites divided into eight different zones at varying distances from the open ocean. In addition to dissolved oxygen, she recorded temperature, salinity, and turbidity at each zone four times, on four separate days. Her findings bore out her hypothesis that the dissolved oxygen levels were generally lower with increased distance from the open ocean.
“The Redondo Beach King Harbor proved itself susceptible to massive fish kills due to its low oxygen levels, problematic shape, and limited flushing. Based on my findings, I am most concerned about low dissolved oxygen levels in zone 1 which were on average 4.5 mg/l. Slightly below this level, at 4mg/l, certain species could become stressed and move to a different area.” 

Kacey Mewborn
Age 14, Grade 8
Lakeland Christian School
Lakeland, Florida
Mango Skins: An Effective Organic Pest Deterrent
After her family orange tree died from HLB (Huanglongbing) disease, Kacey wondered if an organic substance could target Asian Citrus Psyllid (Diaphorina citri), the invasive insect that transmits HLB. She decided to experiment with mango skins, which have low levels of urushiol oil, the compound responsible for the irritating properties in poison ivy. Kacey applied a mango skin solution to several citrus shoots in a specially constructed bioassay arena and then carefully introduced psyllids into the arena. She concluded that her hypothesis was supported: the foliage treated with the mango skin solution yielded a much lower number of psyllids on the leaves than the untreated control group in every trial.
“Furthermore, I want to produce this mango skin solution in the form of a spray for maximum efficiency when treating citrus plants. For the purpose of this experiment, I used a more viscous solution to ensure that it would stay on the leaves. Presently, I anticipate that a spray would work equally as well as the thicker solution I used, but more investigation will be pursued.” 

Katie Sesi
Age 14, Grade 9
Huron High School
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Goldfish as a Model for Understanding Learning and Memory: More Complex Than You Think
Katie spent three years investigating long-term memory and learning in goldfish using a series of complicated, specially built mazes. Katie found that goldfish retained a long-term memory of the maze solution for at least four months. She also discovered, contrary to her hypothesis, that goldfish appear to use turn strategy (egocentric) initially and then change toward place strategy (allocentric) in moving through the mazes to find food.
“My goal is to show that goldfish have a complex component to their brains and that the evolutionary process of learning and memory started further down the vertebral phylogenetic line, not more recently with higher-level vertebrates and humans. The importance in studying goldfish is that the goldfish is an excellent animal model in which to begin to understand learning and memory, not only for evolutionary purposes, but also for extrapolating the findings to human brain function…”

William Blanton
Age 14, Grade 9

Tuscumbia High School
Tuscumbia, Missouri
Dripping With Life: Investigating Bacteria in SpeleothemsWilliam went in search of calcifying bacteria on speleothems carbonates—dripstone structures found in cave systems—in his home state of Missouri. He focused on speleothems structures found in four locations (two in a natural cave on private property and two on artificial surfaces in Kaiser State Park). Using a hammer and chisel to collect specimens, William crushed about one gram from each of 13 samples collected, suspended them in a saline solution, and then placed them on petri dishes for analysis. Most samples in the petri dishes exhibited growth of bacterial colony-forming units (CFUs) confirming William’s first hypothesis that speleothems collected from artificial and natural surfaces would have calcifying bacteria CFUs. However, he rejected his second hypothesis—that artificial surfaces would harbor greater bacterial diversity than the natural cave surfaces—because the results were inconclusive.
“Possible future studies involve collecting speleothem samples from different locations in the solar system and use PCR and plating techniques to find possible life. In the future, when space travel is more ubiquitous, samples could be collected from extreme conditions looking for possible life. As a future astrobiologist, perhaps I can be there when it happens.

Katherine Handler
Age 15, Grade 10
Amity Regional High School
Woodbridge, Connecticut
Temporal Changes in the Vertebrate Scavenger Community in Association with Wildebeest Carcasses

Katherine wondered about the interaction of scavengers over time in the Serengeti Mara ecosystem in Kenya, particularly after the annual mass drowning of wildebeests attempting to cross the Mara River. She analyzed scavenger activities recorded on 1,273 photos taken by automated game cameras set up by her mentors at fixed locations on the river’s banks. Katherine confirmed her hypothesis that the different scavenger characteristics would affect when different scavengers would appear at the carcass site. Large avian scavengers (like the Marabou Stork and White Backed Vulture) located the carcasses and arrived at the site first. Non-avian scavengers (such as hyenas and crocodiles) did not appear until eight days after the mass drowning event. Smaller avian scavengers (like the Sacred Ibis) appeared only after the larger ones had consumed most of the carcasses.
“These data contribute to the knowledge on what happens when an organism dies. Specifically for these wildebeest, avian scavengers are the greatest scavengers, helping to return the nutrients back into the surrounding ecosystems. Now that the scavenger species are known, future research may entail tracking them to discover to where the nutrients from the wildebeest carcasses are returning.”


Zachary Weishampel
Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Award Winner
Age 15, Grade 10
Paul J. Hagerty High School
Oviedo, Florida
Digging the Dark: Broad-Scale Sea Turtle Nesting Patterns vis-à-vis Satellite-Derived Measures of Artificial Lighting
A night-time turtle walk among the nesting loggerheads at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge got Zachary wondering: Could the light pollution from artificial lighting sources be having an adverse effect on the nesting patterns of the three major turtle species in Florida? Zachary accessed the Index Nesting Beach Survey sea turtle nesting data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for 1992–2012 and compared it with the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program imagery data for Florida covering the same 20-year period. He found that, while light pollution had not diminished along these important nesting beaches, leatherback nest density actually increased over this period. He found there was no change in loggerhead nest density. Only green turtle nest density registered a slightly negative impact from the artificial lighting. Zachary’s study was the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
“Using satellites to measure habitat quality is an efficient method to monitor extensive areas systematically. As both satellite and sea turtle nesting records span two decades, I wanted to use archived datasets to evaluate trends and relationships.”


Anne Blythe Davis
Age 17, Grade 11
Stanford University Online High School
Swan Quarter, North Carolina
The Effects of Varying Conductivity on Phytoplankton Concentration and Species Concentration in the Presence of Nitrogen and Phosphorous in Lake Mattamuskeet
Anne decided to investigate how increasing nitrogen and phosphorus separately and together affects phytoplankton concentration and species composition in Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County, North Carolina. Collecting 180 one-liter containers filled with lake water during peak phytoplankton concentrations, Anne introduced various levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, nitrogen and phosphorus, and Instant Ocean sea salts.  She then incubated the containers in floating corrals in a canal near the lake.  She hypothesized that nitrogen-dosed samples would have higher concentrations of chlorophyll than the phosphorus or control samples. She also hypothesized that samples with both nitrogen and phosphorus would have significantly higher chlorophyll concentrations than any other samples. These two hypotheses were supported by the data. However, the hypothesis that conductivity changes (the addition of Instant Ocean sea salt) would correspond to decreased chlorophyll concentrations was rejected.
“On a more personal level, I was driven to conduct this research because my family’s livelihood is farming and our farm contributes to the nutrient load in the lake. I designed my project to answer questions that would lead to improving the water quality of Lake Mattamuskeet and water bodies throughout the world—waters that support wildlife, fisheries, and human communities—and are simultaneously impacted by nutrient input and sea level rise.”


Soon Il Higashino
Age 17, Grade 11
Ossining High School
Ossining , New York
The Identification of Cutaneous Bacteria on Salamanders that Inhibit the Chytrid Fungus  Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis
Concerned withthedecline of amphibian populations caused by the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, SoonIldecided to investigate whether urbanization influences the presence of beneficial cutaneous bacteria on salamanders that inhibit the growth of the deadly fungus. She studieda total of 23 Eastern redback salamanders (Plethoden cinereus) from nine sites across New York, ranging from urban (NY Botanical Garden) to rural (Black Rock Forest Consortium). She swabbed each salamander to sample any bacteria, before returning  it to its site. The swabs were streaked onto petri dishes where they were incubated until distinct colonies were visible. Contrary to her initial hypothesis, salamanders found in urban sites yielded a larger diversity of bacterial isolates than those found in rural sites. However, her hypothesis that the number of cutaneous bacteria with inhibitory abilities decreases with increased urbanization could not be supported until more data was collected. Soon Il is continuing with this research.
“In addition, soil samples collected from each study site are currently being examined in order to investigate soil carbon levels and soil pH and how they may correlate with bacterial isolates. Future research may wish to sample a wider range of amphibian species in order to broaden our understanding of inhibitory abilities of cutaneous bacteria in additional amphibian species.”  


Beatrice Brown
Age 18, Grade 12
John F. Kennedy High School
Bellmore, New York
Forecasting Hurricane Hazards for the Long Island Area
Like many on Long Island, Beatrice and her family lost their home during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Inspired by locals struggling to rebuild, she devoted her time to creating a novel model for seasonal hurricane predictions on Long Island. Using data on sea surface temperatures and atmospheric circulation patterns compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Beatrice developed a simplified autoregression model for predicting hurricane probability. Correlating her model with six of the most intense storms to hit Long Island from 1879 to 2012 (including Hurricanes Gloria, Irene, and Sandy), she confirmed her hypothesis that persistence in sea surface temperatures (SST) coupled with large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns produces a useful tool for examining local hurricane risks.
“The simple persistence-based autoregression model used here suggests an increase in hurricane activity in the Long Island area in recent years. If current trends persist, this risk will likely increase. Thus, the Long Island area should carefully monitor the possibility of continuing climate trends and associated increased risks. Such monitoring might help provide improved seasonal warning for events such as Hurricane Irene and Sandy, which could be used to better prepare communities for hurricanes.”  


Lilith South
Age 18, Grade 12
Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology
Conyers, Georgia
Chytrid Treatments and Their Compatibility with Amphibian TissueLilith experimented with several possible treatments against the spread of the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis(Bd), a pathogen responsible for the decline of amphibian populations all over the world. She tested several treatments that had already shown promising results, including an anti-microbial peptide and a pro-biotic bacteria, as well as an untried novel treatment using the bacteria Lactobacillus hammesii, which prevents mold growth on sourdough bread.  Because of lab restrictions, Lilith was unable to use the pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.  Instead she substituted Homolaphlyctis polyrhiza (Hp), a non-pathogenic model fungus closely related to Bd.  Surprisingly, she discovered that the novel treatment using Lactobacillus hammesii was most effective in controlling Homolaphlyctis polyrhizagrowth.
“L. hammesii could be a very effective and safe treatment for amphibians infected with Bd. It is effective at controlling Hp growth and is compatible with amphibian cells. This treatment could be further tested by observing its effects on the pathogen, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, and on a whole amphibian organism.”

American Museum of Natural History (amnh.org)

The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, is one of the world’s preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. The Museum encompasses 45 permanent exhibition halls, including the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for temporary exhibitions. It is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, New York State’s official memorial to its 33rd governor and the nation’s 26th president, and a tribute to Roosevelt’s enduring legacy of conservation. The Museum’s five active research divisions and three cross-disciplinary centers support approximately 200 scientists, whose work draws on a world-class permanent collection of more than 33 million specimens and artifacts, as well as specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data, and one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, it is the only American museum authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree. In 2012, the Museum began offering a pilot Master of Arts in Teaching program with a specialization in Earth science, which is the only non-university affiliated such program in the United States. Annual attendance has grown to approximately 5 million, and the Museum’s exhibitions and Space Shows can be seen in venues on five continents. The Museum’s website and collection of apps for mobile devices extend its collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to millions more beyond its walls. Visit amnh.org for more information.

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