Headshot Photo of Sonja Michaluk
2023 Award Recipient


Project Communities Conservation Initiative

Location Titusville, NJ

Issue Area Climate Justice/Environment | Education

When Sonja was 11, she advocated for changes in a development plan for a natural gas pipeline set to be built in a wetland near her home. Her research and activism led to a change in the project design, which preserved the wetlands. Inspired by this experience, she created the Communities Conservation Initiative, a nonprofit, including a genetics lab, in New Jersey that protects aquatic ecosystems and seeks to inform decision-makers and empower the next generation of citizen scientists.

The Initiative has contributed to preserving more than 250 acres of ecologically sensitive wetlands and wildlife corridors in central New Jersey, providing clean drinking water to many and home to an abundance of species. Sonja also developed a groundbreaking DNA barcoding technique to assess the presence of pollutants in waterways more accurately. Sonja has inspired and educated more than 3,000 people to become environmental stewards through this work.

Ecosystems should be nurtured as an integral part of our communities so that the benefits of clean water and clean air are available to everyone. No matter their background, everyone has fundamental rights to access clean water and green spaces for physical and emotional health.

Sonja Michaluk
Sonja Michaluk speaks with another scientist in the genetics lab.

Communities Conservation Initiative

Founded in 2018, the Communities Conservation Initiative aims to improve the accuracy, precision, and statistical power of environmental data to better measure and manage water quality changes over time. CCI’s mission is to work symbiotically with conservation organizations on the local scale and enhance their impact through scientific capability. Sonja, CCI’s founder, developed a first-of-its-kind technology to address water quality. She knew her method could empower communities to advocate for protecting their water resources, so Sonja developed a portable kit for classroom and field use that utilizes her groundbreaking DNA barcoding technology. She also uses Python and machine learning to create an interactive model of waterway health so others can learn.

Sonja Michaluk sits in the genetics lab,