Winner of the Junior Academy Challenge — Fall 2021: “Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems”
Published July 13, 2023
Team members: Anzhelika-Mariia H. (Team Lead) (Ukraine), Kusum S. (Nepal), Aman Kumar F. (India), Manan P. (India), Ksheerja S. (India), Viktoriia L. (Ukraine)
Mentor: Pratibha Gupta (India)
In the fall of 2021, six budding scientists entered the Junior Academy Challenge and teamed up online to address eutrophication in the Black Sea area and the Dnieper River that runs across Ukraine.
Eutrophication is a naturally-occurring process that affects the chemical composition of water bodies. When this process is accelerated by human factors like industrial waste, sewage and fertilizers from farms, it causes excessive growth of algae and phytoplankton, oxygen deficiency, and dead zones– thus threatening ecosystems, biodiversity, and public health.
As a first step, the Challenge participants conducted research to better understand the root causes of the problem in the Dnieper River basin. “I got tons of insights on eutrophication and how it is destroying our planet’s life,” explains Aman Kumar. Encouraged by their mentor Pratibha (a.k.a. “Power Girl”), the students also looked at existing solutions before brainstorming new approaches that could improve the aquatic environment. “Our mentor’s enlightening advice and expertise showed me just how vital the role of mentor is,” says Manan. “Hopefully, some day, I can become a NYAS mentor!”
The team eventually opted to focus on ecological ditches, a traditional drainage system that developed in Ukraine in the 1960s, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. Located at the edge of fields, eco-ditches allow excess rainwater to be carried away. In their conventional form, the drainage channels are inefficient at filtering unwanted fertilizer or nutrients and the team sought ways to improve them with better engineering. “The diversity of our group, not only geographical, but also the unique personality that each of us carried added immense value to our work,” says Kusum.
The students identified a potential solution of adding plants with strong filtration capacity to eco-ditches, and looked at hydraulic flow rate control. “I met hardworking individuals who helped me improve my own skills and taught me many valuable lessons in teamwork and analytical thinking,” says Ksheerja. Eco-ditches require regular maintenance to remove sediments. While polluting industries can be easily identified, farms are harder to locate– yet farms release nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that affect the delicate chemical balance of water bodies. The students saw a potential path to a sustainable solution: by mapping agricultural farms and existing canals, they could be linked into common drainage systems that could be monitored.
Raising awareness of the threats posed by eutrophication is also crucial. The Sea Saviors designed a web-based computer game aimed at children aged 8-13 to sensitize them to environmental issues. “My role was to be a game designer and developer. Because of the Junior Academy, I found out about different ways of creating the video game and practiced one more game developing engine,” says Viktoriia. In the two-level game, a friendly sea monster tries to make the aquatic environment more habitable for his fish buddies. In the process, Bob the Monster introduces young players to ecological ditches and the cultivation of oyster shells as ways of regulating the aquatic ecosystem.
“My team was tenacious and industrious from the beginning,” says Pratibha, thrilled with her mentees’ achievements. “Each member had faith in the other one to work diligently.” For the winning team members, the project has been a stimulating learning experience that allowed them to form strong bonds. “Working on this project boosted my motivation to continue my studies in the hope of becoming a scientist one day,” said Anzhelika-Mariia.