When Adam Nayak was in seventh grade—an age when most kids are more freaked out about the troubled ecosystem of their own bodies—he was worried about what was wrong with Portland.
Specifically, he wanted to know what the heck had happened to all the fish.
This question sent Nayak on a four-year journey that led to him winning one of the top prizes in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, the world's largest high school science competition in the world.
Nayak, who begins his senior year at Cleveland High in the fall, is the first Portland Public Schools student ever to make it this far in the competition, taking home a $5,000 prize as a finalist for the prestigious award.
"It started from a simple question," says Nayak, 17. A native of Westmoreland, he'd grown up biking the Springwater Corridor Trail, but when he visited his grandparents' house along the Sammamish River in Washington state, he learned what was missing.
"When we saw salmon multiple times, up where my grandparents live, I started to think," he says. "I remember asking, 'Why don't we see these salmon back in Johnson Creek?'"
For his seventh-grade science fair project at Winterhaven School, he measured the pH, nitrate and fecal coliform levels of the water in Westmoreland Park and found evidence that geese defecating in the waters were making it uninhabitable for fish. (The city has since overhauled the park and improved water quality.)
He didn't stop there, though. Last summer, he continued his research on Johnson Creek out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offices in Northeast Portland, using satellite image data to map out four different watersheds.
What he realized was that as Portland continues to pave over more open spaces, flooding could grow more severe. Flooding in winter is accompanied by severe water lows in summer, because with more pavement, less water gets absorbed back into streams.
"We're not going to halt the increase in population," says Nayak. "How can we interact with these changes in urban environment?"
He put his research into action, presenting his analysis to the Johnson Creek Watershed Council last fall, and reaching out to more than 140 businesses to work on solutions, like rain gardens, to mitigate the impact of more pavement.
His next project? He headed off to Greenland last week for a research project on a yet-to-be-determined subject. "I love to go where I can challenge myself," he says.