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Environment and Outdoors

Maine Student Named National Geographic Young Explorer For Environmental Work

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Ryan Caron King
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Connecticut Public/NENC
Amara Ifeji of Bangor, who was recently named a National Geographic Young Explorer.

Amara Ifeji of Bangor was recently named a National Geographic Young Explorer. It’s a highly competitive, international environmental award for two-dozen young people who are working to find solutions to the most pressing problems in their communities.

Ifeji’s research has focused on water pollution. She’s also a mentor for young environmentalists.

Growing up near Washington, D.C., Ifeji, who is 19, told Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz it wasn’t until she moved to Maine and visited Acadia National Park that she felt a connection to nature.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Ifeji: My first time going there, I remember driving up Cadillac Mountain and looking over the huge expanse and just falling in love with the beautiful landscape before me. And I think that’s really when — I was maybe 10 years old or so — I made a commitment to myself, as well as to Mother Nature to protect her, so that generations to come would be able to really engage and explore the outdoors, just as I had done that day.

Gratz: It did start for you very young. So I’m curious about whether there were some adults along the way who helped you as well.

My research mentor, Mr. Cary James, he is the now-retired director of STEM program at Bangor High School. During my freshman year, summer going into my sophomore year, he approached me and asked if I would be interested in attending the stormwater management and research team summer institute at the University of Maine in Orono. At that institute, I was able to gather so much knowledge about stormwater, as well as drinking water, as well as water justice, that would lead me to do some research around how to remove heavy metal contaminants from drinking water. What inspired me as well, at this time, was the highly televised Flint, Michigan, water crisis. Seeing what those individuals had to go through, as well as discovering that there was actually some lead particles in the Bangor High School drinking water fountains, that’s really what fueled my research.

Talk to me a little bit more about your research and what you have found, and how, as a practical matter, it might help to produce cleaner water.

For this research, I was testing whether or not mycorrhizal fungi are able to help plants to swat out heavy metals, such as lead and copper, which I tested. When they are present, they’re actually able to remove 50% more copper and 30% more lead than if the plants alone had just been, I guess, placed in an environment where they would need to uptake those nutrients or, in this case, those toxins. And I see this playing a pretty key role in places where there is, you know, high, heavy metal contamination.

Well, the other thing that you mentioned a little ways back in our conversation, is this intersection of environmentalism and racial justice. Are there other ways that you’ve thought about to move those things forward?

The biggest thing that I push for when it comes to, I guess, promoting environmental access is education. Climate change is a social issue. There’s not many people who look at a graph of CO2 trends over time and just get it, who just become impassioned by the issue. But there are very few people who, you know, learn about the effects that climate change is having on individuals, who turn a blind eye and who do not become impassioned to take action. Learn about how climate change and its effects are impacting communities that are already marginalized, such as BIPOC individuals, lower-income individuals.

Are there any other major environmental issues facing this state, your home state that you think need to be tackled in the short term?

The Gulf of Maine is warming 99% faster than all of the world’s oceans. When I was in high school, I was the president of my school stormwater management and research team. And I even noticed trends in the short four years that I was there wherein heavy storm events are an effect of climate change. When I was a sophomore, just first getting into the stormwater team, there wasn’t really many events that would allow for us to go out and actually sample. Fast forward to my senior year, I was going out almost every single week to monitor the effects of the stormwater runoff on our local stream, the Kenduskeag, as well as the Greater Penobscot watershed.