By the time junior Sonja Michaluk arrived at Carnegie Mellon University, she had already begun exploring a passion in ecology, particularly wetland and forest conservation.
Though Michaluk has been water monitoring near the Delaware River in New Jersey since she was six years old, she has been gaining the tools to further develop her research through her majors in biology, statistics and machine learning and with the help of her advisor Amanda Willard, director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Biological Sciences.
“I’ve just been very fascinated with aquatic life,” said Michaluk. “One of my favorite things is going out, getting into bodies of water and looking at the organisms living there at the base of the food web. The invertebrates present and how they reflect the overall health of the ecosystem is really fascinating.”
Michaluk joined the Society for Freshwater Science when she was 11 years old. Since then, she has become an expert on freshwater life, particularly macroinvertebrates like non-biting midges and caddisflies.
By investigating invertebrates and small vertebrates, Michaluk assesses the health of a local ecosystem. She examines the populations to see whether they can live in areas of high pollution or low pollution. If there are many species present that are sensitive to pollution, the ecosystem is likely healthy. If the species present are only those that can tolerate high pollution, then something is damaging the ecosystem.
“These organisms have evolved to fit a very specific niche,” said Michaluk. “The organisms present in an ecosystem really reflect the environmental stressors acting on an ecosystem.”
One of the ways that Michaluk assesses species’ resilience and an ecosystem’s health is through a method known as DNA barcoding. In DNA barcoding, genetic material is taken from an organism and used to precisely identify the species. This genetic information is also used to compare organisms from the same species to see how they have adapted to an ecosystem.
Michaluk began developing a method focusing on DNA barcoding on a small species of invertebrates known as Chironomidae or non-biting midges.
“Non-biting midges are present on every continent,” said Michaluk. “They live in a very wide range of aquatic ecosystems. They’re very ubiquitous and are a common denominator across a lot of waterways across the globe. They have the potential to be a global standard for waterway health assessment.”
Michaluk recently received a $2,000 grant from the Entomological Society of America Chrysalis Fund, which she plans to use to expand the research capabilities of the DNA barcoding lab in New Jersey. She plans to use the grant to buy more equipment, host educational programs, and allow researchers to do experiments in-house instead of outsourcing to other labs.
Michaluk hopes to set up similar labs in other watersheds to get a better idea of their health. She believes that by allowing people to help monitor the health of ecosystems, they will be able to better improve both their environment’s health, and their own health.
“As humans we have a lot of potential to upset our local environment, which often comes back around and can harm our health as well,” said Michaluk. “It’s very important to make sure that we keep our ecosystems healthy and have open green spaces for people to access.”
Michaluk has other projects besides monitoring New Jersey waterways. At the Mellon College of Science, she has begun research with Terrence Collins, the Teresa Heinz Professor in Green Chemistry, and director of the Institute for Green Science. The lab predominantly focuses on using chemical catalysts to break down pollutants in water.
“Looking at chemical catalysts to help remove harmful contaminants from ecosystems is something that really appeals to me,” said Michaluk. “It’s the other side of the research I’ve been doing on monitoring the presence of contaminants.”
Besides her academic and research interests, Michaluk is channeling her passion for conservation into a creative endeavor — a field guide. The writing style is meant to be similar to the romanticized guides of the 1800s, combined with the scientific understanding of today. She is contributing to the sections on amphibians, reptiles and macroinvertebrates.
In all of Michaluk’s endeavors, she aims to inspire others to conserve and protect wetlands.
“I’m very passionate about protecting these thriving wetland spaces that provide our drinking water, as well as habitat for sensitive flora and fauna. I am very thankful to CMU for the statistical, scientific and leadership skills so essential for managing our natural ecosystems and wild spaces.” said Michaluk.
■ Kirsten Heuring