SUNY Plattsburgh Associate Professor of Environmental Science Danielle Garneau chose to take a step out of her area expertise to research microplastics in Lake Champlain. The research brought many finding, interesting opportunities and various learning experiences.
Garneau said her involvement with the microplastic research started in 2012 within an inter-SUNY grant, totaling in $71,279, which was shared across multiple SUNY campuses. Professors and students met through online profiles posted by individuals interested in participating in such research. The point was to gather as much expertise as possible across the SUNY system. It gave a broader spectrum of the topic. She said they communicated through remote learning technologies like Skype to gain research experience with a faculty member not on their campus. Garneau met Sherri Mason, a SUNY Fredonia chemistry professor at the time who was studying microplastics across several great lakes by surveying the water and using plankton nets to search for invasive species. When mason began to notice microplastics in the water, she began her research into them. Microplastics can be described as small particles that are added to personal care items to give them abrasive properties. These can be found in products like toothpastes and face washes. Mason wrote about her research on the SUNY website and explained how microplastics are a health issue for animals and humans.
Garnaeu said her area of expertise involves studying wildlife and surveying roadkill. Researching microplastics falls into the environmental chemistry area which was new to her. Garneau wanted to use the research opportunity to teach her students how to sample wastewater, water that has been affected by human use, which goes through treatment plants along with fish and plants. Therefore, she teamed up with mason in 2012. The two mainly communicated through Skype.
Garneau and her students tested 15 types of fish for microplastics, identified various sources for the particles and visited local highschools to educate others on the finding.
During the research process, Garneau enlisted the help of local fisherman who provided the group with dead fish available for dissection. The microplastics found in the fish were separated into four categories—fibers, fragments, films and foams. The research found that 82 percent of microplastic particles found in fish are fibers, very small thread-like fibers that can come from both natural and synthetic fabrics. These particles comes from lint traps in washing machines. Garnaeu said because the cloths are rubbing against each other, these particles get sent to lakes and eaten by fish. This is only one aspect of human contribution to microplastics. She said bottle caps, plastic straws and other common human items are to blame.
“We are the ultimate source,” Garnaeu said,
SUNY Plattsburgh chemistry major Nathanial McCauly said he was recruited by his environmental science major roommate to join Garneau in the research. McCauly was hesitant to take him up on the offer. He said chemistry and environmental science are similar but not the same. He wasn’t sure if he could offer much help being a chemistry major.
“Originally, I was hesitant,” McCauly said. “When I learned more about the research, I found it very interesting. As a chemist, I love plastics because its a very good part of chemistry for us. It was a great opportunity to do research and add it to my resume later on.”
McCauly signed up for one credit hour which meant he had to commit three hours a week to the microplastic research. He said the time spent taking samples, doing research and other necessary work made him step out of his comfort zone which expanded his knowledge and love for the major.
“I will always be grateful for the opportunity.”