American Museum of Natural History Has Announced 2009 Young Naturalist Award Winners main content.

American Museum of Natural History Has Announced 2009 Young Naturalist Award Winners

by AMNH on


Twelve students from across the United States and Canada include three repeat winners from Texas, Maryland, and New York

NEW YORK, May 2009 – The American Museum of Natural History announced the 12 winners of the 12th Annual Young Naturalist Awards, a nationwide, science-based research contest for students in grades 7 through 12, presented by the American Museum of Natural History and supported by Alcoa Foundation.

The program challenges youngsters to embark on their own scientific investigations and then to document their research, observations, and analyses of the natural world. Investigations undertaken by this year's winners ranged from exploring the feeding preferences of birds in the Red Oak Nature Center in Aurora, Illinois, to studying the effects of controlled prairie fires on invasive plants in southern Michigan, to studying the microbes living in coral mucus collected from Leleiwi Beach in Hilo, Hawaii. The 12 students, who demonstrated accuracy in observation and thoroughness in research as well as creativity in writing and drawing, traveled to the Museum from their hometowns in eleven different states and Ontario, Canada on Friday, May 29, 2009, to accept cash awards ranging from $500 to $2,500, meet Museum scientists, take a behind-the-scenes tour, and be recognized at an award ceremony.

"The Young Naturalist Awards is a superb example of students engaging creatively and enthusiastically with the scientific process," said Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History. "We are proud to help foster a love of science and nature in all the participants and especially the terrific winners, whom we congratulate for their exceptional and inspiring work."

The Young Naturalist Awards is a program of the National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology (NCSLET), part of the Museum's Department of Education. Founded in 1997, the National Center is dedicated to capturing the Museum's unparalleled resources collections, scientific research, and exhibitions, and making them available to the broadest possible audience across the nation and throughout the world. The Young Naturalist Awards program was developed by the Museum to promote young people's active participation in the sciences and to recognize excellence in biology, ecology, Earth science, and astronomy.

"We are pleased support the American Museum of Natural History Young Naturalist Awards program - combining education, conservation, and sustainability Ñ key areas of focus for Alcoa and Alcoa Foundation," said Meg McDonald, President of Alcoa Foundation. "We congratulate these young award winners and are proud to encourage the scientists and environment professionals of tomorrow."

Judges from the Museum's scientific, educational, and editorial staff used the following criteria to evaluate the essays: originality; demonstration of the ability to conduct research, thoughtfulness in analyzing and interpreting findings; and creativity and clarity in written and visual presentation. In addition to a cash prize, the winning entries are published on the Museum's Web site, and excerpts are featured in Natural History magazine. (The public can visit the Young Naturalist Awards Web site at to view winning essays and learn more about the program. Inquiries may also be made via email to

"The winners of the Young Naturalist Awards demonstrate a true passion for science research and communication," said Rosamond Kinzler, Director of NCSLET. "Whether these young people investigated the levels of trichloroethylene contamination on a local softball field or studied the impact of Bay grasses on water quality in the Chesapeake, their essays reveal the same dedication to and excitement for the practice of science that our Museum scientists have. The Museum is committed to inspiring and supporting young people – like this year's winners – in their quest to learn more about the world around them."

The awards ceremony featured remarks by Dr. Kinzler; Ms. McDonald; and Melanie L. J. Stiassny, Axelrod Research Curator in the Museum's Division of Vertebrate Zoology. Dr. Stiassny spoke to the 12 young winners on the parallels between their fieldwork and the original research conducted at the Museum.

Following are the 12 winners and excerpts from their winning projects:

Abbie Harris
Age 12, Grade 7
Edwardsburg Middle School
Edwardsburg, Michigan
You're Fired! The Use of Fire to Eliminate Non-Native Plants in a Prairie Restoration
Learning that prescribed burns kept prairies healthy sparked Abbie's interest. She began researching the affects of fire on prairies' native and non-native plants. She staked out areas in three prairies and identified each plant. After prescribed burns at two prairies she repeated the process. While she found a noticeable reduction in the number of non-native plants in the "burned" prairies, she concluded that fire can't totally solve the problem of invasive plants

"I went on a class field trip to Fernwood Botanic garden in southwest Michigan when I was in sixth grade. When we toured the restored prairies, the naturalist told us about invasive, non-native plants such as garlic mustard and how they destroy native habitats."

Rachel Polfer
Age 12, Grade 7
Lake Highland Prep
Maitland, Florida
Marching Hazard
Rachel became concerned when she learned that the field where her marching band practiced might contain harmful levels of trichloroethylene(TCE). She conducted several soil gas surveys at the field. Her results showed that the air was not contaminated and while the soil registered small amounts of volatile organic compounds, they were too low to cause a health risk.

"When the weather is dry, dust fills the air and covers the soles of our shoes; when it is wet water soaks our socks and tickles out feet causing many laughs and a few complaints. For me, those laughs turned to concern when I read an article in the Orlando Sentinel that said the softball field I marched on was being considered for Superfund designation by the Environmental Protection Agency because of a chemical called trichloroethylene!"

Sheah Foster
Age 14, Grade 8
Jefferson Middle School
Aurora, Illinois
Feeding Habits of Aves of Northern Illinois
A naturalist at heart, Sheah elected to conduct a bird survey at a local nature preserve. Her goal was to identify the species of birds there and document their preferences for certain seeds. She learned that mixed seed drew the largest number; suet , more variety. Sheah also created a kit for kids interested in bird observation, including a book she wrote and produced Birds of North Illinois.

"I felt whatever project I chose needed to be useful. To study and not pass that knowledge on is no better than not studying at all...(The) data on which seeds and feeder birds preferred would be useful in helping the center determine what to use as they are on a limited budget and want to make the best use of seed."

Grant Fisher
Age 14, Grade 8
Pi Beta Phi Elementary School
Sevierville, Tennessee
Night Visitors: A Study of the Hourly Distribution of Moth Activity at a Light Station
Grant explored phototropism in night-flying insects, using time-lapse photography and waking to an alarm at regular intervals through the night to observe moths at an ultraviolet light station. In his investigation Grant documented the number and species of moths that visited an ultraviolet light station during four time intervals. His findings showed that the number of moths at the light station increased throughout the night until 2:30 AM. and then began to decline.

"One night when I was about three years old. I found a luna moth at our front porch light. I was absolutely fascinated by its delicate beauty! Since then I have been intrigued by the mystery of light attraction in night-flying insects."

Lena Champlin
Age 15, Grade 9
Greely High School
North Yarmouth, Maine
A Behavioral Test to Examine the Evolution of Color Vision in Vertebrates
Lena wanted to learn more about the way the vertebrate brain perceives color. In her research she found that cone cells and rod cells in the eye allows the seer to see different colors and to distinguish shades of color. Since birds have four cone cells and mammals two, Lena experimented with chickens and sheep to discover whether birds perceive color better than mammals. Her results showed that chickens have better color vision.

"Our perception of color allows enables us to see the fire red of autumn leaves and the deep purple of violets on a rich, green back. It is hard to imagine some species may not share this ability while others may see a wider spectrum of color than us...perceive a world of color with richer detail than we do."

Nathan Clements
Age 14, Grade 9
Los Alamos High School
Los Alamos, New Mexico
Fishing Pressure on Brown Trout Populations in Northern NM Streams
Brown trout inhabit streams in the Jemez mountains of New Mexico and play a vital role in the food chain. Nathan wanted to determine the effect of managed fishing on the brown trout population. He hypothesized that limited fishing would decrease the average age of brown trout in a stream, but would increase the overall health of the remaining trout. After extensive data collection and analysis, Nathan's research showed that managed fishing did not affect the age or condition of brown trout populations.

"Waking up at six in the morning, I grab my gear...I walk through the damp, knee-high grass to the edge of a small, pristine stream, no more than 4 feet wide. I see flashes of silver and red as I look down the length of the stream. These are the brown trout that came to sample. I am here. The work begins."

Alexandra Day
Age 16, Grade 10
Roland Park Country School
Severna Park, Maryland
Native Chesapeake Bay Grasses: A Solution to Nutrient Pollution?
In prior investigations, Alexandra analyzed the deteriorating water quality of Chesapeake Bay and studied the role native oysters and clams played in improving the bay's water quality. This year, Alexandra's investigation focused on native grasses as a possible solution for reducing harmful nutrient levels in the bay. She conducted tests with water stargrass (Heteranthera dubia). Her findings showed that this native grass could potentially reduce three adverse conditions in the bay: nitrogen concentrations, algae blooms and turbidity. Alexandra previously won in 2008.

"Watching the sun rise over Baltimore's skyline, it is difficult for me to realize that this bustling metropolis lies on a tributary of the second largest estuary in the world. Waterfowl and litter float together in the shadow of the factories below giant exhaust towers sending skyward. The interruption of the modern world into one of the most beautiful natural settings I know is difficult to grasp, and I worry anew about the difficulties facing this unique and ancient bay."

Megan Guerrero
Age 15, Grade 10
Home schooled
San Angelo, Texas
Superabsorbent Hydrogels: A Study of the Most Effective Application of Cross-Linked Polyacrylamide Polymers
Motivated by the problems in her drought-ravaged corner of Texas, Megan examined whether adding superabsorbent hydrogels to soil could retain rain water for use when needed. The water-retention she observed, especially when hydrogels were applied in and below the root zone of potted plants, showed potential. She plans to continue testing by doing similar studies on her lawn. Megan previously won in 2008.

"The farmers are struggling; money is lost; the livestock are suffering; and the landscape reflects the all too familiar brown grass and cracked earth...If only there were a way to capture that much needed moisture and lock it away to be used when the rains cease and the soil begins to dry out."

Mali'o Kodis
Age 16, Grade 11
Mountain School of Milton Academy
Volcano, Hawaii 
An Analysis of the Microbial Community Associated with the Mucus of Ringed Coral (Montipora patula)
Mali'o, interested in the worldwide decline of coral, decided to investigate the role of the protective mucus that coats coral. At Leleiwi Beach in Hawaii, she extracted mucus from individual corals to assess the microbial communities present. In the laboratory she was able to identify numerous bacteria. In future studies she plans to examine the function of each type of bacteria so that their role in the mucus and in the coral animal can be assessed.

"With this study, our understanding of the way that coral animals are dealing with the onslaught of disease and other stressors will strengthen and provide a means for more effective coral conservation."

Taylor Wood
Age 16, Grade 11
Sam Houston High School
Lake Charles, Louisiana 
The Effectiveness of Botanical Extracts as Repellents Against Aedes aegypti Mosquitoes
Could plant extracts be more cost-effective and more environmentally safe than chemical insect repellents? Taylor experimented to find out. Test sample extracts were made from four plants. The extracts and two commercial repellents were tested by means of an "arm in cage" method. Taylor's results confirmed that extracts act as natural repellents against Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

"All over the world people are at risk from mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, West Nile virus and many other encephalitis causing agents...My hope is that one day these plants may serve as a source for managing the control of mosquitoes."

Jennifer Draiss
Age 17, Grade 12
Monroe Woodbury High School
Monroe, New York
Facial Expression and its Relationship to Gesture in Western Lowland Gorillas
For over two years, Jennifer has studied how a group of western lowland gorillas at the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest communicate. After focusing on their gestural repertoire, she then endeavored to explore the relationship between gestures and facial expressions. Her investigation showed that the group studied displayed 10 distinct categories of facial expression. These findings are significant to the study of non-vocal communication. Jennifer previously won in 2008.

"I never realized how much one could learn from simple movements that most do not notice...I hypothesized that western lowland gorillas display a variety of facial expression that change with the onset of gesture."

Allister Smith
Age 17, Grade 12
Korah Collegiate and Vocational School
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada
Effects of Herbicide Application Following Mechanical Site Preparation on Long-term Forest Development: An Experiment with Picea glauca
Working in the field to re-evaluate past studies, Allister assessed the long-term effects of herbicides on forests with a particular focus on the white spruce (Picea glauca). He focused on three areas: long-term growth of individual planted trees; overall survival and productivity of the planted trees, and the reduced productivity of surrounding non-planted trees. His findings showed that while initial herbicide spraying can improve the growth and productivity of selected crop species, over the long-term it has a negative impact on the survival of that crop.

"Living in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, I have witnessed our forests be exploited by commercial use for many years and feared the destruction of the natural habitat. I simply could not imagine our country, or continent, without the vast expanses of primeval forests, home to thousands of organisms, water purification systems and recreational areas for humans, leading to a study on long-term effects of herbicides."

About Alcoa Foundation

Alcoa recognizes that the success of its business is directly connected to the strength of the communities in which it operates and together with Alcoa Foundation, works to address the needs of communities where it has a presence. In addition to addressing locally identified needs, Alcoa Foundation is focused on unlocking solutions to critical environmental sustainability challenges, including global climate change. The company combines funding with hands-on support from its employee volunteers, who gave 705,000 service hours in 2008 to make their communities stronger, more resilient places to live and work. Since 1952 Alcoa Foundation has granted more than $490 million to supporting community sustainability worldwide.

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