Here’s why you should always knock before entering a marine biologist’s room

10 Jun 2020

Elena Pagter is currently undertaking a PhD at GMIT. Image: FameLab

Elena Pagter of GMIT discusses her work searching for microplastics on the bottom of Galway Bay.

After completing her BSc in marine biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2013, Elena Pagter went on to complete a master’s in marine biodiversity and conservation organised by the University of Ghent in Belgium.

This allowed her to study in the University of Algarve and the Pierre and Marie Curie University, and complete her thesis work on microplastics sampling techniques at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). Pagter is now doing her PhD at GMIT with scholarship support from the Irish Research Council.

Earlier this year, she was a participant in the finals of the FameLab Ireland science communication competition.

‘We as a society need to re-examine our use of plastics in our lives individually and industrially’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I thank my parents for letting me spend so much time outside and nurturing my love for nature and specifically the ocean. My love for the ocean and wanting to protect it is certainly one of the main reasons I went on to study marine biology and have moved on to looking at marine pollutants today.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that I was one of the winners in my middle school’s science fair with a project on the melting points of different types of chocolate. Not groundbreaking stuff, but this was my first academic indication that I could research topics that were important to me.

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

I am currently assessing the state of microplastic abundance in Galway Bay’s sediments and animals that live in the sediments. I conduct my research at the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre at GMIT.

My master’s thesis dealt with determining which benthic sampling tool and separation method would be best for microplastics. Following on from that, for my PhD I’ve since used this information to find microplastics in Galway Bay’s sediments.

In order to find the microplastics in sediments, I use a dense liquid separation technique that allows the microplastics (less dense than the liquid) to float up out of the sediments when shaken.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Plastics have been a noticeable pollutant and eyesore since its first reported sighting in the 1970s. Despite the presence of microplastics in the marine environment, there is still a lack of knowledge with regards to its sources, distributions and effects on the ecosystem.

My research is important because it addresses some of these gaps by establishing a baseline for microplastic pollution in Galway Bay’s sediments and benthic fauna. Without baselines, it is impossible to quantify and measure how damaging a pollutant is in the environment.

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

Staying on top of all the new research being conducted is a huge task. I had to change the alert settings on my paper aggregator because the influx of material had my notifications running wild.

By the time you’ve finished a manuscript, there are hundreds of new references you could have used but with seemingly no time to read and digest them. Another big challenge is having a microplastic – that you’ve carefully identified and are about to seal in a petri dish – blow away. That’s one piece of evidence that you no longer have access to all because someone decided not to heed your ‘please knock’ advice on the door.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I’d say one misconception for microplastics pollution is that there is a feasible way to go and vacuum up all the little bits that are in the oceans right now. It is a wonderful dream, but there is no technology nor necessity to do this.

Instead of dealing with the breaking up of microplastics to reduce the input of these tiny pollutants, we as a society need to re-examine our use of plastics in our lives individually and industrially. Reducing production of unnecessary plastics would be beneficial to the marine environment.

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

With regards to plastic pollution, I am eager to see more research in innovative non-plastic packaging solutions.

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