Thursday June 01, 2017
The Water Environment Federation (WEF) announced the names of high school students from around the country selected as the 2017 state winners of the U.S. Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP), the nation’s most prestigious youth award for a water related science projects. According to Travis Loop, WEF senior director for communications, Aida Arms from South Burlington High School (SBHS) took the Vermont state title and is one of only 59 high school students in the country who will compete at the national finals at the University of North Carolina this June. The competition aims to increase students’ interest in water related issues and raise awareness about global water challenges. Arms’ winning project, titled, “The Effect of Different Nitrogen to Phosphorus Ratios on the Growth of Cyanobacteria,” was developed in response to the harm that cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as blue-green algae, inflict on ecosystems, particularly that of Lake Champlain.
“While winning this prize validates my work and the effort I put into it, and subsequently increases my confidence in my academic abilities, I like to keep in mind that it doesn’t define who I am as a student,” says Arms, a junior at SBHS. She sagely adds, “If I had not won anything last year and let that influence my perception of my abilities, I would have missed out on a great deal of opportunities. I’m not going to win everything, and that’s okay, I know that an award does not define my abilities.”
Inspired by attending then-Governor Shumlin’s signing of the Clean Water Bill in 2015 when she was an intern for the Community and Economic Development Office of Burlington, Arms reports, “The bill was enacted to curb farm and storm water runoff into Lake Champlain and thereby limit the growth of blue-green algae. After learning that Vermont only regulated phosphorus inputs, rather than both nitrogen and phosphorus inputs, I developed my project.” A student with a passion for the humanities, she adds, “What I enjoyed about this project is that it allowed me to apply my interest in public policy to a scientific endeavor.”
Arms’ project attempts to determine whether it would be wise to implement policy in regards to nitrogen inputs. Through experimentation, she reports that she was able to conclude that Anabaena, a genus of cyanobacteria found in Lake Champlain, experiences the most growth in a low nitrogen to phosphorus ratio compared to an equal nitrogen to phosphorus ratio and a low nitrogen to phosphorus ratio. She writes, “While the data reinforces the commonly held belief that phosphorus is the primary nutrient that influences growth, the results should not necessarily be taken at face value. Nitrogen’s role may be smaller than that of phosphorus, but it should not be dismissed.” She adds, “There needs to be further experimentation that isolates the impact of nitrogen to determine the exact extent to which nitrogen promotes cyanobacteria growth. From those results it can be determined whether or not there needs to be a revision in how nutrients are regulated.” She may, in the future, conduct further experimentation to gain a more conclusive understanding of nitrogen’s impact on cyanobacteria growth.
Arms finalized the project as a sophomore while she was a student of SBHS teacher, Nathaniel Moore. She describes him as extremely helpful, and says, “He assisted me throughout the duration of my project and introduced me to my mentor, without whom I would have never had access to equipment that allowed me to obtain my data.”
Arms recalls that she did not have a strong predisposition for the sciences going into her sophomore year, noting that the decision to take a class that required completion of a science project was made at the last minute. “At the 2016 Vermont State Science and Math Fair, I won the SJWP Regional Award, which enabled me to submit my project to compete at the national level representing the State of Vermont. I didn’t win the state award last year, but I was encouraged to submit my project again this year.”
Feeling a sense of validation from winning awards, including representing Vermont and the U.S. at the International Sustainable World Engineering, Energy and Environment Project Olympiad (ISWEEEP) as a finalist, Arms comments, “I wish that that confidence in my scientific abilities were inherent, but in a society that subtly tells women that they don’t have the same set of scientific, technological, and mathematical abilities as men, that wasn’t the case for me and for a lot of other girls.”
Arms is now finishing a busy junior year, one in which she and two of her peers founded the SBHS Science Olympiad Club after their positive experiences at the Vermont State Science and Math Fair. Noting that her project only solidifies her interest in public policy, she is currently taking Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics at SBHS. She says, “It has not only been immensely interesting, but has also put the policy question that I had posed into perspective.”
While she will attend the SJWP national competition June 16 and 17, Arms remains as passionate about public policy as ever. She observes, “I am aware of the irony that accompanies speaking of a connection between public policy and scientific inquiry at a time when some of the most influential policymakers are also adamant climate change deniers. While my experiment may not have been as conclusive as I had hoped in regards to the impact of nitrogen inputs on cyanobacteria growth, I think that it is conclusive in the sense that it upholds the idea that policy should be a product of research and in-depth analysis, not inflammatory rhetoric.”