Sunday, February 24, 2013

UNCW Students Studying Beached Plastics

Emma Belcher entering beach sample data
The UNCW plastic marine debris research that started four years ago in the Sargasso Sea 700 miles off the coast of North Carolina has made its way to the coast of NC.  Over the past couple of semesters, students have been collecting beach samples of manmade materials and natural debris found in the wrack line to compare densities.  They are also learning how to type the plastics using FTIR instrumentation,  and Mass Spectrometry to analyze the plastics for adsorbed Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).   Dr. Brooks Avery oversees the beach sampling protocol, while Bonnie Monteleone works with students in our new lab space.  Over the past two years we have been nomads stealing space in three different labs, but as of January, we have scored a beautiful lab space in Dobo Hall courtesy of Dr. Seaton. (see images)

Misty Wilbanks shares turtle gastro-juices data with Emma 

Misty Wilbanks, highlighted in the Star News a few weeks ago, is a veteran undergraduate working up the plastics collected from our Sargasso Sea samples. Her Honors project, looking at the potential of POPs transferring from ingested plastics into sea turtle tissue, is especially unique because it requires collaboration with Dr. Pam Seaton from Chemistry, Dr. Amanda Southwood Willard from Biology, and the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Network.  Misty's hands-on experience has been valuable on many levels.  She not only is learning specialized instrumentation and the importance of collaboration, but she has also been able to train other students.

Jaclyn (Jackie) Smith bringing in beach sample into new lab

Jackie sorting out natural debris from manmade

To date, we have had 26 Direct Independent Study opportunities for students.  They learn scientific method in the field as well has how to manage their time.  Processing these samples is not trivial.  Going to the beach to collect samples is the easy part.  Dissecting the samples requires long hours in the lab.  The sample has to be dried, separated (the natural debris from the manmade materials), and weighed.  The students then separate the manmade debris by classification, then each classification weighed and counted.  The multi-dimensional data then needs to be entered into the data base.

Corina Cooling weighing dry sample
Corina Cooling preparing sample to dry

The collection of manmade debris not only is a great scientific educational tool, it also helps keep debris from washing back out into the ocean.  Plastic debris is known to be ingested by marine life as evidenced by the Bull Dolphin fish caught off the coast of Virginia not long ago.  (See photo below)

Fish caught with large plastic fragment, pudding cup and squirt gun in stomach.