Standing inside a room closed to the public at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, Brandon Gong, 13, was awestruck by the thousands of fossils stacked floor to ceiling, many still in their original wooden crates dating to the 1890s.
Amazed, Gong, of Garden City Middle School and one of 13 winners of the museum's Young Naturalist Award, said: "All I could think of after seeing those unopened crates was all that information not being utilized . . . so many specimens waiting to be investigated."
Gong and other winners from across the nation Friday took a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum's laboratories and collection rooms, in which prehistoric mammal fossils and 2 million fish specimens are stored. These included billions of DNA sequences at the museum's Sackler Institute of Comparative Genomics.
The students in grades 7-12 gave collective "oohs" and "aahs" when they were shown a 50-pound lower jaw of an American mastodon, which once roamed Manhattan and was found in 1925 in the Inwood section.
"This is one of my favorites. There's no chance of finding another one like this in Manhattan," said Carl Mehling of the museum's division of paleontology.
The museum's Young Naturalist Award is a national science competition that encourages research in earth science, ecology, astronomy and biology.
Gong's experiment discovered a combination of soil and wheat straw that can be used in agriculture to retain water and alleviate drought conditions.
Gong said he got the idea after reading about the drought in California. "I started to do some research. There is a worldwide water crisis and I saw how the drought had affected food prices in the U.S. and in the world . . . I think we should protect the environment . . . without it we won't be here."
"Brandon is very curious. He is always trying to find answers to his questions," said his proud mother, Liming Gong of Garden City, who was at yesterday's awards ceremony. "This award is a great encouragement for my son and it rewards him for all his hard work."
Other experiments that won recognition included how to best grow algae for biofuel, and testing a natural herbicide to combat invasive plants.
The annual competition received 850 entries, which were judged by the museum's scientists. "I've read your papers," said Rob DeSalle, curator of invertebrate zoology. "Don't be [medical] doctors. Get your PhD and become scientists," he told the students.