New Paltz High School (NPHS) senior Hope Nitza was one of five winners in the poster presentation division at the 36th annual Upstate New York Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. The symposium, which is hosted by the University at Albany, was held virtually this year on March 10 and 11.
The Town of New Paltz resident was the first-place winner in the Environmental Science subcategory of the poster competition. Her winning poster, titled “The Effect of Land Development on Stream Ecosystem Health in the Mill Brook Preserve in New Paltz,” was among 43 posters submitted by high school students from across New York State. Competitors submitted an electronic version of their posters, along with a narrative describing the research being showcased. Judges viewed the presentations via Zoom.
Nitza’s work was the culmination of years of effort, according to NPHS teacher and Science Research Program instructor Justin Seweryn. Beginning in her sophomore year, Nitza collaborated with her mentor, Dr. Neil Bettez, a professor and scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies who also serves as New Paltz town supervisor.
Nitza’s work with Bettez, said Seweryn, enabled her to pose a unique hypothesis and utilize a local land conservation area to answer a question relating to land-use impacts on stream health. “Her project was such an incredible success because of her courage in taking on a complex effort, her ability to work with local stakeholders, her diligence in not giving up when presented with logistical hurdles and old-fashioned hard work,” said Seweryn. “We’re very proud of her.”
Nitza, who plans to pursue a career in conservation biology, initially contemplated focusing her project on wildlife or animals. “But I realized I wanted to do something local because I wanted my research and findings to actually be relevant to my life and to the Town of New Paltz,” she said. “I wanted the people of New Paltz, myself included, to be able to learn about our impact on the environment around us.” She chose the Mill Brook Preserve, she explained, because she experiences it in her backyard. “I have a special admiration for it. I couldn’t pass up the chance to potentially help it with my findings.” After reading numerous peer-reviewed articles, she decided to focus her studies on stream ecology.
Nitza credits a number of people with helping her over the years, including Bettez, whom she recognizes as her mentor; Martha Cheo, a local expert on macroinvertebrates who shared her expertise; and Seweryn, who helped her to access needed resources like geographic information system (GIS) mapping software and taking hours out of his evenings to work with her. Hope also expresses her heartfelt thanks to her parents, Ted Nitza and Dr. Amy Nitza, for their late-night help proofreading and editing her work while she was crunching deadlines.
“What inspires me the most about the ecology within New Paltz is how tangible it is,” Nitza said. “I can step into streams just a short walk from my house and scoop out jars of stream gunk that are secretly filled with many tiny little bugs, and these bugs can tell me a whole story on the health of their entire stream. I am really glad that I chose to study the New Paltz area, because it is so cool to learn how my house, my school building and the town I am in everyday are affecting the ecology around us.”