Young environmental hero: Sonja Michaluk

By Michele S. Byers

The motto “Think globally, act locally” has been used for years to encourage local action on environmental problems.

Sonja Michaluk, 17, has been thinking globally and acting locally since she was a 6-year-old monitoring streams for water quality in her hometown of Hopewell Township.

And the Carnegie Mellon University student went on to act globally as well – and for that she was just named a winner of the 2021 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes.

The Barron Prize annually honors 25 outstanding young leaders who have made a significant positive impact on people, their communities and the environment.

Sonja is passionate about clean water and created a novel way to evaluate water quality in rivers and streams by combining technologies from genetics, ecology and statistics.

She believes her new method has the potential to become the global standard for assessing the health of waterways. This, in turn, could help clean water advocates stop projects that threaten waterways, wildlife and human health.

“I grew up splashing in streams, with all these animals, and I want my children to grow up splashing in streams. I want them to see all the green frogs, the bullfrogs, the garter snakes and the milk snakes,” she said.

Sonja first began advocating for clean water when she was 11 and the Leidy gas pipeline expansion was proposed near her home.

At public hearings, many local residents spoke about damage to property values. Some spoke of the positive impacts of the pipeline on the local economy. Sonja came with graphs and charts about stream health in the Cherry Brook and how wildlife would be put at risk.

“I was told that in a room full of opinions, I was the only one who came with data. That has always resonated with me,” she said.

The pipeline expansion ultimately went ahead, but with some safeguards to protect stream health.

What was Sonja’s new innovation?

A common method of assessing stream health is to identify the tiny aquatic organisms that live in it. Some, like the larvae of certain insects, are extremely sensitive to pollution.

If these species are present in a stream, it is an indicator the water is very clean. On the other hand, if only pollution-tolerant species are found, it shows that water quality is impaired.

But it is not easy to identify organisms in a stream – especially for volunteer citizen scientists. Many species look alike and only highly trained experts can tell the difference.

Sonja developed a way to use “DNA barcoding” to sequence genes and easily determine the exact species of organisms in the stream.

“It could completely change how you classify a stream,” she said.

Sonja believes insects known as Chironomids – more commonly known as non-biting midges, “the less disliked cousin of the mosquito” – is the best insect to serve as a barometer of stream health.

There are 10,000 Chironomid species found worldwide, in every type of habitat, and they have great variation in their sensitivity to pollution.

Thanks to Sonja’s efforts, the nonprofit Watershed Institute in Pennington – where she got her earliest training in bioassessments – now has a lab capable of DNA barcoding on aquatic organisms.

She has also written a “playbook” with standard operating procedures to help other nonprofit organizations set up their own genetic labs, run tests and fundraise to help cover costs.

“This gives organizations the power to collect more accurate data,” she explains.

It will also help to better leverage the power of citizen science, since expert identification skills are no longer needed.

“There is also the potential to get more youths involved, once the pandemic is over,” Sonja said.

The Barron Prize was founded in 2001 by author T.A. Barron and named for his mother, Gloria Barron. Since then, the prize has honored more than 500 young people who demonstrate qualities like courage, compassion and perseverance as they work to help their communities or protect the planet.

“Nothing is more inspiring than stories about heroic people who have truly made a difference to the world,” Barron said. “And we need our heroes today more than ever. Not celebrities, but heroes; people whose character can inspire us all. That is the purpose of the Barron Prize: to shine the spotlight on these amazing young people so their stories will inspire others.”

Sonja inspires with her passion for wildlife and clean water. In addition to winning a Barron Prize, Sonja was also recognized as a “Wetlands Hero” earlier this year by the Environmental Law Institute, and in 2019 she was awarded a Stockholm Junior Water Prize for water-related research.

Sonja gives public presentations, often accompanied by her pet bullfrog, Tapioca. She makes the case that frogs and humans are not really very different: “The bullfrog wants clean water, you want clean water. The bullfrog needs to eat, you need to eat.”

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org