Plastics are ubiquitous, they’re found everywhere and we all have interacted with them at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, some of those plastics are getting into the marine ecosystem and this is a big problem. My name is Dr. Rachel Simmons I cowrote this project with Dr. Ana Barral and what we’re really hoping to do is demystify science and scientists. Science is performed by regular people and if it’s performed by regular people then you can do it too. What we’re trying to do is use microbial degradation of ocean plastics as a central learning topic for introductory biology students at National University. The students get to benefit from all of the access to the research infrastructure that we have here at Scripps and we get to benefit from educational opportunities with those undergraduate students. [Dr. Ana Barral] This project is an education project for increasing engagement and success in STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) but it also has a research part and we are looking at the microbes attached to the plastics. I think that educating students and our public is extremely important in better understanding what’s actually going on with plastic trash in our oceans. What’s so engaging is that students get a chance to go out on the pier something that’s unusual, outside of the classroom. The thing that really roped me in was the first field trip out here at SIO. [Dr. Emelia DeForce] Myself and Jeff got our SCUBA gear on and and the students saw us go into the ocean and retrieve some of the samples that are being incubated on the Scripps pier. And then we took those samples back into the lab and they were able to see plastic and what it looks like with the microorganisms growing on there. It brings a true story to the students. [Dr. Jeff Bowman] When we put our plastic incubations in, the amount of biomass that accumulates on those plastics in a very short amount of time is really profound. It really made me aware of the amount of plastics that’s out there and the amount that the plastic interacts with all of the life in the ocean including ocean microbes. A lot of the stuents that are coming into this program are non-traditional students, they’re students that are re-entering college a little bit later in life may not have had a whole lot of formal science training or if they did it was a long time in the past. It’s been so many years since my last biology class. And even at my last school it was like… yeah. So you know, it’s kind of a real stretch. We like to showcase that there are many different paths for getting here and with the panel we want to make this field more inclusive and a viable option for everybody who is interested. [Dakota Pinkowski] Being a computer guy I was like wait a second I can love marine biology and be a computer guy too?! I was like, “Yes! This is for me!” This has just been an awesome experience, overall. You know what I mean? We are using cutting-edge technology such as sequencing to understand what are the microbes in that water column? And what are the ones that are colonizing the plastics? To better understand how they might be breaking down some of those little pieces. And we hope that the work we’re doing could help us understand the many different layers of this issue so that we can find sustainable solutions. And there any misconceptions about this issue. [Dr. Emelia DeForce] You always get the question “well, why the heck can’t we go out there and just clean it up”? Furthermore, everybody talks about this “island of plastic” that’s out in the Pacific. This is the highest concentration of plastics that’s been yet recorded in the Pacific. It is not an island. It is little tiny shards on the surface of the water. As these plastics come from the land and travel through the ocean of course there’s wind, waves, UV from the sunlight action is breaking this plastic down over time. And they end up these really small pieces. Because these pieces of plastic are so small you really can think about them like you think about smog. We’d love to clean up smog. If there was a way to clean up smog they would be doing it! We know that there’s a problem with plastics in the ocean. That has been proven! Ideally, environmental policy should be catalyzed by scientific evidence rather than environmental catastrophe. [Dr. Ana Barral] We hope that both arms of this project are going to move forward. We plan to disseminate the project to other schools, institutions and actually we would like to move into highschools and K-12 to increase engagement and interest in STEM from early on.

CURE-ing Microbes on Ocean Plastics Project

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