Entry for:2019 Queensland Women in STEM Prize
1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)
Plastic particles smaller than 5mm (Microplastics) are fast becoming one of the world’s pervasive pollutants. Due to their small size, microplastics are ingested by marine animals of all sizes, from plankton to prawns, and wahoo to whales. Troublingly, fish and shellfish, which are typically consumed by humans are also often found contaminated with microplastics. There is growing international concern for our seafood safety, and whether humans might be ingesting microplastics through contaminated seafood. My research is shedding light on this issue in Queensland’s most iconic and delicious seafood species: Coral Trout, Barramundi, Mud Crabs, Prawns, Scallops, and Moreton Bay Bugs. My study examines the digestive tract and edible portions (for example fish fillets, prawn tails, and crab claws) of these species to learn if there is a risk of seafood acting as a source of microplastics to humans, whilst simultaneously building Queensland’s expertise in this emerging field of research.
2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)
Understanding microplastic consumption by humans is an international research priority. There are many potential health concerns associated with animals consuming plastic, so it stands to reason that there may also be negative health effects in humans who inadvertently consume plastics.
On the other hand, preemptive avoidance of seafood due to misinformation or baseless fears can harm the seafood industry. It is often stated in popular media that all seafood contains microplastics and that humans who consume seafood are inadvertently consuming plastic. However there is little evidence to show that microplastics are present in tissue that humans consume. In Queensland, people typically do not consume the internal organs of many animals, which is where plastics are typically located.
Research on the effects of plastic pollution on seafood is lacking in most Australian states, but this is particularly the case in Queensland. Queensland’s seafood industry generates over $272 million per annum. Due to the ubiquitous nature of plastic marine debris, and the potential for ecological toxicity of ingested plastics, microplastics present an immanent threat to wild and farmed seafood, By focusing my research on the most iconic and economically important species, my results provide a snapshot of the entire Queensland fishing industry and flagship sentinel species, which can be used champion the issue.
For this research, I am actively working with Queensland commercial fishers. Fishers are involved with data and sample collection, and many have expressed interest in learning the results of my study. I am currently discussing with fishers their preferred method for accessing the information generated in this study.
The most significant outcome for this study is that the research will be used to direct future research. If plastics are found in the edible tissue of seafood, then the next step will be to determine if current or future concentrations are toxic to humans. But if microplastics are not present in edible tissue, then the next steps will be to investigate the toxic and ecological effects on the seafood themselves. This data will be crucial to ensure a continuing and economical seafood industry. Finally, the outcome for this research will be accurate and reliable information for the general public, whom thus far, have not had access to information with which to base their consumption choices on. Furthermore, the data can be used by government policy makers to enhance legislation and management reforms on plastic pollution, which until recently have not been based on local data.
3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)
Scientific literacy and a general interest in STEM throughout the general community is needed to help Australia grow. I believe that scientific research, no matter how complex, needs to be freely available and most importantly, easily understandable by the general public. This is my personal objective, both within my own research and through volunteer activities. I particularly love communicating my passion for science to the wider community.
For example, since 2007, I have volunteered every summer at Mon Repos turtle rookery. The volunteers are responsible for collecting biological information about nesting female loggerhead turtles and their hatchlings. We also actively relocate nests that are laid in areas likely to be inundated by the tide. Through this work I am able to provide information and answer questions for tourists from all over the world, who travel to Mon Repos to watch the turtles nest. The program is an extremely rewarding experience which prioritizes public engagement and education of the public through conversation activities. The program also allows me to follow my passions of marine conservation and scientific communication.
Last year i was able to build on this experience and volunteer at the World Science Festival in Brisbane. I worked in the Hatchery, an interactive exhibit which brings Mon Repos rookery to Brisbane. I was able to communicate my background knowledge of loggerhead biology, and current research on plastic pollution, to the general public.
I am also involved in several STEM engagement activities. Most recently, I worked with high achieving Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander students in year 10. The students travel Australia experiencing real life science, which culminates in them designing a research project in their chosen field. My role was to inspire students to select microplastics as their chosen topic, offer guidance for their experimental design and teach them about emerging issues in this fast paced research field.
In addition to formal volunteer activities, I also keep a research trip blog, which I use to highlight some of the amazing things I have been able to experience through my research. I started this blog for a 2 month research trip to Antarctica in 2016, and I particularly enjoyed being able to share the science that is carried out in a such a remote and abstract location.
I am dedicated to actively disseminating my research to the wider community. Recently, I had the opportunity to give several live and prerecorded interviews about my research on microplastics. The story gained international interest and I was able to communicate my exciting findings to a global audience.
My passion for my field and dedication to community engagement was recently recognised, when i became 1 of 19 Queenslander's awarded a Churchill Fellowship. Fellows must travel internationally to learn from international experts in their field, and on return, must actively distribute new knowledge and skills to the Australian community. I am looking forward to this upcoming unique opportunity, and the chance to further my engagement activities.
I'm a Post Doc research fellow at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. I study the effects of marine pollution on seafood. After completing my PhD on Antarctic krill in 2018, I moved to Town...