Microplastic Debris Pollution in the Great Lakes and Oceans Research at UWS

University of Wisconsin Superior associate professor’s contributions to research on the affects of microplastic pollutants helped pass state legislation and a federal ban on the use of microbeads. Most commonly, these microbeads are found in health products, such as skin scrubs, soaps and toothpastes. Bans on the sale of products containing microplastics will begin July 1, 2017.

About Dr. Lorena M. Rios Mendoza

Dr. Lorena M. Rios Mendoza is an Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at the UW-Superior. Dr. Rios expertise is in environmental chemistry pollution. She has been researching plastic pollution since 2003 on marine plastic debris analyzing persistent organic pollutants in California beaches and Pacific Ocean. She moved from California to Wisconsin and she started to study plastic debris contamination on the Great Lakes. Dr. Rios participated in the first-time collection of plastic debris samples in the Great Lakes in 2012 and second time in 2013. She is involving undergraduate students in her plastic debris contamination research. “I love to work with undergraduate students and prepare them to be my future colleagues” (Figure 1).

Microplastics

 Microplastic debris pollution is an emerging freshwater contaminant whose potential environmental and human health are not yet well understood. Plastic debris has been found in large amounts in the oceans as well as on beaches, shorelines and lakes. Since I started my plastic debris research in the North Pacific Gyre (NPG) and in the Great Lakes, I have given talks about my research results and observations in the field, after one of my talks some people (professional, students, or community) say “Wow! I did not know that plastics were a problem outside in the ocean or in our Great Lakes.” Some can refer to the garbage patch as a floating plastic island, I spent time explaining that this is a misconception, but in my last expedition to the NPG, we found a plastic “island” (Figure 2).

Plastic Debris on the Great Lakes

The Laurentian Great Lakes contain approximately 21% of the Earth’s surface freshwater. The Great Lakes have historically experienced environmental problems from the release of organic and inorganic pollutants from a variety of sources around the lakes. Research on the sources, levels and consequences of plastic debris and microplastics in the Great Lakes is limited.

I had the opportunity to participate in the FIRST collection of plastic debris from the surface waters from the Great Lakes. We, the University of Wisconsin Superior, were the first team that reported the adsorption of persistent organic contaminants onto microplastic surface (Figure 3 and 4).

I have been working with a group of undergraduate students in this research project. I have presented in collaboration with my research students the results at several National and International Conferences (Figure 5).  In August, 2013, Chi-Yeon and I joined to the crew of the R/V Sea Dragon in collaboration with Pangaea Exploration to collect plastic debris from Lakes Michigan, Huron and St. Claire.

The University of Wisconsin-Superior offers a great opportunity for undergraduates students to do research in different fields such as the challenge environmental chemistry pollution field.

For my part I want the students to develop skills such as critical thinking and feel confident in the lab working with real samples and participating in the discussion of the results trying to describe a big picture and the interpretation of the research results. My students present their research results not just to UWS peers but also to the community.

A Student Perspective

Kristen

At UW-Superior, I worked under the guidance of Dr. Rios Mendoza on research that sought to determine the amount of microplastic in the environment. What started as research seeking to determine if there was plastic particles present in liquid pain killers morphed into research on whether there is microplastic in the air that we breathe. On this project, I was able to work on the details of the experimental design and try new things as I saw fit. I was also able to attend research conferences across the country where I presented my research in the form of a poster (Figure 6). Working on a research project as an undergraduate student was a great way for me to use what I learned in a practical setting. It showed me that I was knew more than I thought I did and gave me the motivation to explore the areas in which my knowledge was lacking. Overall, completing a research project, especially under Dr. Rios who is incredibly supportive and encouraging, was a remarkable experience that boosted my self-confidence, communication skills and motivated me to start on the path to a doctoral degree in chemistry.

*Learn more about Dr. Lorena M. Rios Mendoza’s research.

Student Perspective by Kristen Johnson

Introduction by Emma Anderson

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