Cascade high-schooler tracks heavy metals in the Missouri River

This story was published in the Great Falls Tribune.

Waking up at 3 a.m. to hop in a boat and electrofish with state biologists is what Ashton Clinger considers a good time. The early-morning adventures were part of the Cascade High School senior’s science project, a nearly two-year undertaking that saw her raise more than $9,000 to fund her research.

Clinger’s work testing for heavy metals in Missouri River sediments, fish and osprey won her a gold award and several merit awards—including one from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks—at the Montana State Science Fair at the University of Montana earlier this week. Last week, she won 2nd place and more merit awards at the Montana Region II State Science and Engineering Fair last week. In May, she’ll compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Ariz.

A map printed on the bottom of Clinger’s science fair poster board shows the osprey nests and sample sites along the stretch of the Missouri between Cascade and Craig, representing new research in the area.

“Because it’s never been done, I want to be the first to do it,” Clinger recently said during an interview in Great Falls, pointing to a series of graphs that show the differences in heavy-metal levels among sediment plots, fish livers and osprey chick blood samples. The graphs indicate bioaccumulation, which she explains this way: “Start at the bottom of the food chain, and as you go up the food chain, the contamination levels grow.”

As top predators that eat only fish, osprey accumulate more heavy metals—such as mercury, cadmium and lead—than the fish they eat. And the fish concentrate these contaminants more than bugs living in river sediment. Comparing the different levels across the food chain shows how much the contamination has concentrated.

To do that, Clinger joined state and university researchers in the field. She gathered Missouri River sand and mud, helped with a state fish survey, and learned how to properly hold an osprey chick to draw blood samples.

But it’s not the fieldwork or awards that inspire Clinger—it’s her brother.

Luke Clinger was a science whiz. For fun he would build robots and looked forward to a future in engineering. On nature walks and even just at home, Luke would pepper his sister with questions, challenging her to better understand natural science.

In 2008, a car accident left Luke in a wheelchair with severe brain damage. Now, his scientific curiosity lives on in his sister.

“I thought she was just the little sister tagging along,” their mother Sheri Clinger said. She shook her head, smiling wistfully, saying her daughter now watches over her big brother while crunching numbers for her science project instead of going out with friends.

That number crunching also involved fundraising. Clinger wrote several grants and reached out to local businesses to raise more than $9,000, including a donation of about $500 from the University of Montana Environmental Biogeochemistry Laboratory.

“Dedicated” is the word University of Montana professor Heiko Langner used to describe Clinger. She accompanied Langner in the field last summer. The data they gathered along the Missouri River complements the work Langner does on the Hellgate Osprey Project, a long-term survey of heavy metals in osprey along the Clark Fork River, the first study of its kind in Montana. Clinger’s work allows Langner to compare heavy-metal levels in the two rivers.

Clinger plans to continue her research at the University of Montana, where, come fall, she’ll study wildlife biology.