This researcher is uncovering the truth about our big microplastics problem

24 Oct 2018

NUI Galway PhD student Alina Madita Wieczorek. Image: NUI Galway

NUI Galway researcher Alina Madita Wieczorek is on the frontline when it comes to analysing the potential harm of microplastics in Irish waterways.

Alina Madita Wieczorek is a PhD student from NUI Galway who made the move to Ireland from north-west Germany in 2011 to study marine sciences after a stint volunteering for a sea turtle study in Uruguay.

As an undergraduate, she developed NUI Galway’s Zoological Society and wrote a booklet about the natural history and biology of Galway’s coastline. She is now in the final stages of her write-up for her PhD, with the aim of publishing in 2019.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My parents always fuelled my interest in nature and I remember taking hour-long walks in the forest with my dad explaining to me and my sister why leaves are green, why stag beetles have mandibles and how ant colonies work within their giant piles. His German nickname to date remains to be Erklärbär, which translates to something like ‘explanation bear’. Whenever he couldn’t explain something, we researched for an answer together, which could keep the whole family busy.

On top of this, my dad was a passionate swimmer and my mother loved to be close to the sea, so we were lucky to spend a lot of our holidays swimming in various seas across the globe, meaning a lot of positive memories of mine are associated with being close to or in the sea.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Since working with my PhD supervisors Dr Tom Doyle and Prof Peter Croot at NUI Galway, the projects have changed and evolved, but the main focus of our research is to investigate the impact of microplastics on key marine species we can find in the open ocean.

For example, earlier this year, we published a study on deep-sea fish and, currently, I am working on a study that looks at how microplastics may affect a zooplankton species that plays a major role in the cycling of elements within our seas.

We hope that this research will help to understand the extent of the consequences of marine microplastic pollution. Personally, it is also very important for me to communicate these results to the public in order to have people understand the potential consequences of the way we live our lives in order to move towards a more responsible, sustainable society.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I strongly believe that it is important to understand that our actions have long-lasting consequences for us and the environment we live in.

The deep-sea fish with exceptionally high abundances of microplastics we found were sampled hundreds of kilometres away from any coastline, and this underlines that this is a ubiquitous problem we have to deal with. Once we become aware of the consequences of our actions as a society, we are able to evolve into a more sustainable society, which in the end will benefit us.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

While my research is not inventing any new technologies, compounds or machines, the findings of our research could drive the invention of these.

Plastics are a very useful material and have great applications in areas such as medicine; however, in many other cases, plastics can easily be replaced by natural, degradable materials. There is currently a huge potential for companies to develop alternative solutions to plastics, such as polylactic acid-based polymers that are more environmental friendly.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

As I work with oceanic species, it can be very hard to actually get a hold of them due to the vast nature of our oceans. I previously spent one month aboard a ship without getting a single sample of the species I wanted to work on.

Furthermore, if we really would like to understand the interactions of microplastics with, for instance, deep-sea fish, we would need to conduct experiments with these, which can be quite difficult. This is because in the laboratories, it will be very hard – and at times impossible – to resemble the conditions they live in, in order to have them behave the same way they would in nature.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Microplastic research has gained exceptional attention over the past 10 years and a number of studies looking at microplastic pollution have arisen.

While attempts have been made, it is very hard to agree on standardised protocols to analyse microplastic abundances in the surface waters within the sediments and, in particular, within marine organisms. I think it would be of huge benefit if experts in each field would get together in order to come up with the best possible methods so results will be more comparable between research groups and different environments.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

While we now know that microplastics are a ubiquitous pollutant in our seas, I think we need to further understand how they interact with different organisms and whether they may be transported from one organism to another.

Another important aspect is to look at the impacts of microplastics on ecosystems within the marine environment. Some recent studies have shown that there may be a shift in community structure, an impact on bioturbation and primary production, as well as an impact on the cycling of carbon within the ocean.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.