One hot sunny day last June, Ashley Stagnari, a senior at John Jay High School, spent hours in Jamaica Bay’s salt marshes, shoveling mud from specific sites into gallon bags. She’d chosen the location specifically because sewers in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Nassau County regularly overflow, pouring effluent into that urban estuary.
The next day, Ashley drove the soil samples to a lab at Cornell University. There, alongside graduate assistants and in collaboration with Dr. Todd Walter, a professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, she analyzed the greenhouse gas emissions of the wetlands polluted by carbon and nitrogen. The data suggest that in the face of increased pollution, wetlands have the potential to become greenhouse gas sources rather than sinks.
Ashley’s original research won first place in the Earth and Environmental Science category of the Westchester-Rockland Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS), held at John Jay High School on Feb. 8. She will present her research at the Upstate JSHS on March 25 and 26, competing for a spot to go to the national competition.
Looking at wetlands’ role in climate change is part of Ashley’s broad interest in environmental issues. As a middle school student, she started a petition to halt the Canadian government-led action to euthanize wolves. Ashley now interns with Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center. She’s also a member of the high school sustainability club led by Steven Zoeller and pitched an idea to repurpose plastic at Bedford2020’s Greenlight Awards.
She credits much of the success of her science research project to her mentor at Cornell. “Dr. Walter was so willing to talk about a lot of projects with me and connect me with other scientists,” Ashley said. “He also helped me specify my interests into a tangible study.”
She worked in Cornell’s lab for a week analyzing the soil samples with the help of a graduate assistant. Throughout the summer they did the data analysis and reviewed the results with Walter. “It was amazing to have a professor at his level to be so supportive of a high school student,” Ashley said.