Amara Ifeji moved to Bangor from the D.C. area when she was nine years old. Her mother had gotten a job as a pharmacist.

“My mom is one of the smartest people I know,” Ifeji said, later noting how she helped her get through AP Chemistry during sophomore year. “When we moved to America [from Nigeria], none of her education credits transferred and she had to repeat a lot of it to get her degree again.”

In a quest to become “true Mainers,” as Ifeji put it, her family soon visited Acadia National Park and drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain. As a curious nature girl who was limited to digging up worms on the playground until then, it was a life-changing experience.

“I remember looking at this large expanse,” Ifeji said. “It was nothing I had ever seen before. It was so beautiful. And I think that was the moment I realized, I want to do something in preserving Mother Nature the way she was intended to be for future generations.”

Now 17, and enrolling at Northeastern University in the fall, Ifeji is passionate about improving people’s lives through cultural connections and science, specifically water quality.

Three years ago, she attended a University of Maine water quality training program. At the time, drinking fountains at her school had been disabled because of heavy metal contamination. She had also been following the Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis and coverup and then became aware of full scale and range of the issues: UNICEF and the World Health Organization estimate that nearly a third of people worldwide do not have access to safely managed water.

So Ifeji started a research project that she continued under the mentorship of teachers at Bangor High School’s STEM Academy. Last summer, she earned a Best of Category in Plant Sciences at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, AZ. Ifeji showed how arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, known to farmers to increase crop yield, also protects plants from heavy metals in the water.

In addition to her water quality research achievements, Ifeji founded the Minority Student Union at Bangor High School, creating a space that also included students “in the majority” and worked on developing cultural competence and finding places to spark change.

She also organized a school-wide discussion about anti-bias that brought in local leaders and diversity-and-inclusion training instructors—a tough feat, she says, in a school not known for assemblies.

Olivia Griset, Executive Director of the Maine Environmental Education Association, nominated Ifeji for a Source Award and wrote, “Amara exemplifies transformational leadership. [She] fills me with hope for a Maine that is more just and sustainable.”