13 January 2010

At Nine Years Old, the Youngest FM09 Scientist!

Posted by Michael McFadden

Yesterday I got this letter in my inbox. It is truly amazing! Claire was also featured in a news story produced by the Bay Area’s ABC affiliate, KGO-TV.

Claire shows us her dribbling skills!Hello from Claire Dworsky, the youngest scientist to have presented a poster at the 2009 AGU annual meeting in San Francisco.

Yes, I am nine years old and I go to school in San Francisco, so it was easy for me to come to the AGU meeting. I presented my poster and explained my project–I compared runoff water from both grass and synthetic turf soccer fields to see if the runoff was contaminated by either high nutrient levels or heavy metals.

The answer was: yes and yes. You see, lots of cities and counties around the country are putting in synthetic turf fields–there are now 35,000 throughout the U.S. now–and there are a lot of people who are concerned about what turf may be doing to the environment, and to kids who play on it.

I’m one of those kids–I’m an elite-level competitive soccer player. In 2009 I won the National Science Foundation-Kids Science Challenge and was paired with UC Santa Cruz’s Professor Adina Paytan (my hero!). She helped me design my study, and then tested all 110 of my water samples in her lab.

I also did a plant study and an animal study. I grew carrots from seed in synthetic turf runoff water and in runoff from a grass soccer field. And I tested both types of runoff with aquatic life, Daphnia magna. (Check out my video of a Daphnia magnus in turf runoff water–you can see that he’s “eating” some of the crumb rubber from the synthetic turf field.) It turns out that plants don’t grow very well in synthetic turf runoff, and the Daphnia all died within 24-36 hours of being introduced into turf runoff water.

It was interesting to me to work so hard on my study, and then see that a lot of people wanted it to be more black and white–like grass is good, and turf is bad. But it’s not really like that. There is no “squeaky green solution” to figuring out what is better. They both have issues. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis to see whether it’s worth it to use one or the other.

But in my opinion, no one should locate a synthetic turf field near a water source–like the Bay or the ocean–because turf runoff does seem to be lethal to aquatic life. And if we choose to have grass fields, we need to maintain them, not just leaving them with pot holes and gopher holes or putting too much fertilizer on them.

It was great to meet so many amazing scientists at the AGU meeting. I totally loved people coming and asking me questions about my study. I think mine is the largest sample study ever taken of runoff water from a soccer field. It feels great to have created something unique from asking questions and following where it lead me.

I think being a scientist is extremely cool because it’s like being a detective, and investigating to find the scientific truth. When people argue about whether something is safe, it’s really amazing to use science to find the answers. But getting them to listen to you isn’t always so easy, because people will believe what they want to believe. At least I can say that I did the research, and I worked really hard for a year to collect the samples and create my report, and I came to AGU and presented it to lots of other scientists.

I think I would like to continue studying science and maybe study it at university. I would like to work in a lab, and try to solve problems and answer questions with science.

The AGU conference was so amazing to me, to see how many scientists are out there, and how many things they’re studying. So many of them were very welcoming and totally encouraging even to someone my age. People always ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” which is kind of annoying, because how can any one really know? There are so many possibilities, and probably some that haven’t even been discovered yet. But it’s cool to begin to see what the possibilities are, that there are people doing amazing science, and that if I keep working at it I could be one of those people. Thank you to everyone at AGU, to the Bright Stars program, to my mentor Professor Adina, and to Jim Metzner who started the Kids Science Challenge. This has been an amazing year!


Claire Dworsky