Sonja Michaluk first collected water samples from Princeton wetlands at age six. Soon after, she began exploring New Jersey waterways, gathering info to share with local officials.
“Since fourth grade, Sonja has not only generated data, but translated it so that policy makers and the public can understand it,” says Patricia Shanley, PhD, director of stewardship at Ridgeview Conservancy, a Princeton nonprofit that preserves forests and wetlands. “She has presented her findings in compelling ways in front of daunting audiences such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.”
Now an 18-year-old research scientist and student at Carnegie Mellon University, Michaluk says volunteering at Ridgeview Conservancy fostered her love of nature at a young age. As a member of the Conservancy’s Woodland Explorers, an educational program for elementary schoolchildren, she would recite entire lessons to her family while encouraging them to walk nearby trails and try edible plants. “I grew up splashing in streams,” Michaluk adds. “I loved seeing green frogs, bullfrogs, garter snakes and milk snakes. It’s a wonderful environment to see and to explore.”
From 2014 to 2020, Michaluk contributed to the preservation of ecologically sensitive wetlands and wildlife corridors in central New Jersey by analyzing field data and sharing it with local and state officials. In 2019, the Hopewell Valley Central High School alumna received the Stockholm Junior Water Prize for her work monitoring the health of Jersey waterways. Michaluk’s findings looked at the health of Chironomidae, a non-biting midge related to mosquitoes. “Chironomidae live in waterways all over the world—even in Antarctica,” Michaluk says. “Monitoring Chironmidae allows us to determine the health of the waterways.”
Michaluk’s work has been internationally recognized, published in Encyclopaedia Britannica, presented at conferences, and featured in climate-change films. She won the President’s Environmental Youth Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a Grand Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. In 2016, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named a minor planet after her, and she has influenced New Jersey construction and development regulations.
Today, Michaluk still volunteers at Ridgeview Conservancy when she’s not in school. She now holds the title of scientific advisor. Her advice? Others should donate their time as well.
“I got hands-on experience, was mentored by wonderful people, and had fun,” Michaluk says. “Volunteering is a good way to find your passion.”
Ridgeview Conservancy was founded in 2009 and provides educational programs that connect students to nature. To learn more about the nonprofit, donate or volunteer, visit ridgeviewconservancy.org.Click here to leave a comment