Big prize for a young naturalist

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By Roger Snodgrass

Nathan Clements, a thoughtful 15-year old student at Los Alamos High School, was honored with a Young Naturalist Award on May 29 in New York City.


“There’s a lot of competition,” he said Friday, back from an extended trip to the East Coast. “But if you put the effort into it and follow the outline they give you, it’s a very rewarding and exciting contest.”


He was one of 12 students selected in the nation-wide competition for middle and high-school students, presented by the American Museum of Natural History and supported by the Alcoa Foundation.


Clements won for his project, “Fishing Pressure on Brown Trout Populations in Northern New Mexico Streams,” based on his research in the Valles Caldera National Preserve last fall.


The purpose of his project was to try to determine if the fish were healthier in a stream that was fished than in an unfished stream.


His findings were modest, including a conclusion that “Fishing pressure does not appear to affect the length, weight, age, or condition of brown trout in northern New Mexico streams.”


But his meticulous approach, methodology and clarity of expression impressed the judges.


“Waking up at six in the morning, I grab my gear,” he wrote. “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 I came to sample. I am here. The work begins.”


It was a winding road getting to New York, and not just the hairpin turns getting out to the fieldwork.  


Besides gathering data, there was the matter of analyzing it, illustrating and interpreting the results and writing the project up with an unusual originality and distinctive flair.


“Nathan is very clear and pleasant in his writing which combines narration with a solid description of the science,” a scientist on the judging panel commented.


“The narration progresses in a logical way, reflecting Nathan’s thoughtful and analytical mind. He also demonstrates having done a very good background research regarding the subject of study.”


A science writer on the panel wrote, “This is an extremely well-written essay, a solid investigation and sophisticated data analysis ... One thing I’ve never seen in a Young Naturalist Essay that appears here is a comparison of his data with other scientist’s data.”


In January, Clement’s brown trout project won the county prize for environmental science for the senior division, and then took first in the regional competition and honorable mention at the state science fair in Socorro.


Prompted by an aunt, he decided to adapt his project for the AMNH contest, using much of the material he had already written, but “changing it to give it more a naturalist flavor and make it more to the point,” he said.


Then one day after school, there was a call from Christine Economos, the administrator of the Young American Naturalist Awards Program at the museum.


“She said I won and gave me kind of a setup,” he said.


Along with a $1,000 check for the Young American Naturalist prize, he won a trip for two to the award ceremonies.


As it turned out, he was accompanied by his mother and father, Brad and Jane Clements and his younger brother Ethan. They stayed in the Excelsior Hotel near Central Park and along with the award ceremony, were treated to behind the scenes excursions and other events at the museum.


While touring the herpetology room, the young naturalist was especially impressed when he got to feed the giant Galapagos turtles that were walking around, apparently free to roam. “On the legs of the table, you could see where their shells had ground the bottoms away,” he said. “That was the most interesting and almost comical thing,” he said.


In an interview this week, Economos said the winners were selected from about 800 submissions and were evaluated by scientists, science writers and science educators.


“It was wonderful,” she said, of the event. On the day before the winners arrived, LaGuardia was fogged in and many participants were delayed, but it all worked out. One winner from Hawaii brought a chest of fresh-flower leis for everybody.


Clements said he submitted his paper for publication in the “Journal of Fresh Water Ecology.”


“They didn’t respond,” he said. But that turned out well, because now the Museum of Natural History has the rights and has already published it on its website.


Clements is a busy young man this summer, working with the Youth Conservation Corp, counseling for the Pajarito Environmental Education Center’s LEAP science camp and getting a driving license.


He credits PEEC, along with his family and teachers, for inspiring his interest in the natural world.


“It’s one of the most supportive places for environmental science,” he said


A sophomore next year, he’s also planning a new science project in collaboration with fellow student Joe Abeyta. They want to do something with crawfish this summer.


“We’re looking at how cattle grazing effects crawfish,” he said, with an experienced eye for winning science projects. “We’re still trying to figure out a variable that will catch people’s eye. What does it achieve for the people? Something with impact.”


For more information:


Read the winning essays and learn more about the Young Naturalist Awards web at www.amnh.org/yna.