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Science fairs help Intel ISEF alum pursue career in ecology

August Steigmeyer, currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Conservation Ecology at the University of Michigan, is an alum of Intel ISEF 2007, Intel ISEF 2008, and the 2001 Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. Steigmeyer competed in 13 years of science fairs, culminating in his two years at Intel ISEF. In 2008, he won a Fourth Award in Environmental Sciences. He fills us in on his experiences since Intel ISEF and how the international competition aided the pursuit of his lifelong passion of ecology.

What is your best memory from your Intel ISEF experiences?

Those two trips to Intel ISEF are still some of the most memorable experiences of my life and it is hard to pin down a specific “best memory.” All of the week’s side activities were certainly a highlight, especially the Nobel Laureates panel. But I think my favorite part was simply walking through the main project display hall and looking at hundreds of incredible research projects representing young scientists from all over the world — it was great to see such passion and excitement for science and to share in everyone’s fascinating discoveries. It was like the science fairs I had participated in as a kid, only magnified a thousand fold. 

Can you tell us about your project and what initially made you interested in it and science in general?

For my first trip to Intel ISEF (2007), I completed a study on retention pond toxicity, relating factors such as pond size, runoff zone surface area, and pond age to the level of contaminants in the water and sediment. For Intel ISEF 2008, I exposed benthic amphipods to sediments gathered from agricultural drainage ditches, assessing the effects of these toxin-laden sediments on the survival and reproduction of aquatic organisms. 

My interest in science began at a very early age. My parents loved taking me to science and natural history museums. We also spent a lot of time outdoors on “field expeditions” to forests, lakes, and other natural sites (fossil hunting was one of my favorite pastimes and I still have the trilobite I found when I was 6). I wanted to tell everyone about the things I had discovered and science fair was the perfect outlet. I completed my first science project, a study on snow fence effectiveness, in kindergarten and was selected to attend the Northeastern Indiana Regional Science and Engineering Fair. For every year after that (13 years), I worked on a different environmentally themed study, and competed each of those years at the school and regional fairs. Intel ISEF was the grand culmination of a childhood spent exploring the wonders of this planet and discovering the mechanisms that drive the natural world. 

How did participating in Intel ISEF help you progress in ecology?

Intel ISEF certainly inspired me to continue on with my science research. Spending a week with so many exuberant students and professional scientists solidified my desire to pursue research professionally. I love the world of science — that drive to learn and discover the unknown is unparalleled. Whether they were looking to modify an energy source, derive a new pharmaceutical, or reverse ecological damage, everyone I met was contributing the unending pursuit of knowledge — and having a lot of fun doing it. Programs like the Discovery Young Scientist Challenge and Intel ISEF provide so much inspiration and spur the excitement that drives innovation.

What education, career, and research highlights stand out to you most? Why?

I received a BA Dual Degree in Biology and English from Kenyon College in 2012. From there I spent a year honing various skills (I worked at a marine institute in the Florida Keys, finished my private pilot license, and received two SCUBA certifications.) In Fall 2013, I enrolled at The University of Michigan: School of Natural Resources and Environment, where I am currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Conservation Ecology. My research focus is aquatic toxicology. For my master’s thesis I am studying the toxicity of effluent from wastewater treatment plants.

I strived to diversify my education, skills, and experiences. These pursuits put me on the right track to keep advancing my career goals but, more importantly, I wanted to keep my old science fair ideals and just have fun trying new things. More than anything, new sparks of inspiration and exhilaration refuel the fires of knowledge.

From your point of view as an ecologist, what advice would you give aspiring STEM students?

This planet is such an incredibly diverse world with so much still left to discover. Dozens of different biomes, billions of years of change, and an uncountable number of living organisms — it is literally impossible to not find a corner of that universe that you want to explore, understand, and protect. Find what you like to study, find where you love to spend your time, and you will find a lifelong passion. 

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