Interview by Wudan Yan, Hippo Reads Science Editor

In November 2014, Aquatic Toxicologist Diana Papoulias boarded a ship with thirteen other women to travel on the eXXpedition: a trip across the Atlantic Ocean to explore how the health of our environment impacts human health. Prior to this trip, she worked at the United States Geological Survey for 25 years studying the effect of environmental pollutants on fish. Now that the trip is over, Dr. Papoulias had an opportunity to speak with our science editor, Wudan Yan, about her experience on the trip, and why we should be more cognizant of our day-to-day activities.

WY: How has your background informed your decision to go on the eXXpedition?

DP: The eXXpedition was born from a collaboration between two women: Lucy Gilliam, the lead scientist on this trip, who collaborated with Emily Penn, a sailor very interested in the issue of microplastics in the ocean. They came up with the idea of taking a trip with women from very diverse backgrounds. We went across the Atlantic Ocean—just a bit south of the North Atlantic Gyre, and a little north of the South Atlantic Gyre—to sample plastics across these gyres, and look at this issue from different perspectives. We wanted to have this conversation among women, because women—because of their biology—are particularly impacted by chemicals, and because of their consumer choices, women may be able to influence how we move forward.

WY: What differences in consumer choices are you talking about?

DP: Personal care products (i.e., cosmetics), for example, are more targeted towards women. A bulk of those cosmetics have, I hate to say it, chemicals in them that could potentially be problematic for women. Microbeads, nanoparticles used to carry pigments to the skin, are so widely used in the cosmetic industry. Because these products are chronically used and topically applied, it’s a good place to start making people aware about the chemicals that can get into the environment.

WY: What’s the difference between microplastics and plastics?

DP: Microplastics are plastics that are smaller than 5mm. It’s mostly materials you can hardly pick out with your eye, but for some, you may have to use a microscope. A large plastic bag can be broken down into tiny, tiny pieces of plastic that will be ingested. These microplastics, then, are readily ingestible by organisms at the lower part of the food chain, which then get consumed by other animals further up the food chain. For instance, sea birds eat fish that have skimmed off plastic from eating zooplankton.

One of the main themes of this trip was to make the unseen seen. I grew up in Boston, along the ocean, and worked in big rivers. I’ve never thought being able to dip a teacup into an expanse of open ocean—thousands of miles from land—and pull out little pieces of plastic. When we took a first sample, we saw nearly forty pieces of plastic amongst baby squid and fish.

WY: Do we know how much microplastics have accumulated in the oceans?

DP: Nearly 270,000 tons.

WY: How did you sample for plastics on the boat?

DP: Jenna Jambeck, from the University of Georgia, was guiding us in using established protocols. Very generally, we were using a net made of very fine mesh that would capture anything larger than 300 microns (for comparison, 800 micron mesh is used for window screens) and pulled it through the water at a slow and steady speed for 30 minutes, and then saw what we got. We did this every day across the ocean, and found both organisms and plastics collected in the net.

WY: What else is being done to bring awareness to the issue of microplastics in the oceans?

DP: There are other scientists going out into the oceans and looking at the accumulation of plastics. There are actually several apps that track plastic accumulation. Say, you’re out sailing for the day or you’re doing some huge adventure like we did, you can take the app and enumerate on it every time you see a big piece of plastic floating by. Every time you document a plastic sighting, the data is uplinked to a database and then displayed on a map. Over time, this data can be used to track patterns in plastic distribution and help us understand how plastics travel from land to garbage patches in the ocean.

5 Gyres recently published a study in PLoS ONE after looking at the amount of plastic in the oceans between the northern and southern hemispheres. They had models that told them how much plastic they should be finding, and their research was a test of this model. The most curious finding is that not all the plastic could be accounted for. The model seemed to have overpredicted the amount of microplastics, and so many millions of tons of plastics were missing. Scientists are now thinking that plastics are sinking down to the bottom of the sea floor and accumulating there, which would make it difficult for us to find them.

WY: Let’s talk more about the trip: How did you hear of it?

DP: I found out about this trip through a listserv that addresses environmental issues last year. Emily Penn works for Pangaea Explorations, which gave us access to the Sea Dragon: a 72-foot sailing ship that can withstand the rigors of the open ocean. It’s designed to be readily crewed so we can maintain the sailing and science at the same time. As I understand it, they received 300 applicants for 12 positions on the boat. They hand-picked a select group of women from different disciplines. I was the only biologist. We had an engineer who has worked extensively with plastics, a videographer, an artist. Some women had sailing experience, but very few of us had ever crossed an ocean.

WY: How was the trip funded?

DP: These trips aren’t cheap, and I imagine in total, cost over $100,000. The trip was funded partly by us (the women who went on the trip), and by donations from a variety of companies. We received food donations, and had the cost of the boat subsidized.

WY: Do you know if any men tried applying?

DP: Hmmm…. Well, we did have one stowaway: Lucy was pregnant, and I believe she’ll be giving birth to a boy in about four to five months.

WY: So he just got in by default. What was it like having a group of fourteen women on a boat?

DP: There was some concern about the physical levels of endurance, but all of us were really in fine shape to do any of the work that needed to be done. Adjusting to the boat was challenging: we were absolutely exhausted after the first week or so, and a lot of us were sea sick. For a group of women who had never worked together, let alone met, we were able to turn into a team very quickly: people always did more than was required of them, so the trip went very smoothly. Nobody was snarky at all. Overall, it was very inspiring to be around these women.

WY: What was a day on the boat like?

DP: We ran in four-hour shifts, so at any given time, four or five of us would always be on watch—if I had a shift that started at midnight, I would be off after 4am. To keep each other awake, we would sing funny songs, play games, or make hand puppets on the sails with our headlamps. I’d try and get some sleep afterwards, before doing some science, which would take about 4-5 hours. Afterwards, dinner, and then I’d be above watching the ship again. It all sort of blended together, but there was a nice time every evening when we all ate together, and got to hear each individual’s story about why they were there and what inspired them to embark on such a trip. The oldest on the trip was 67 and the youngest 24, so it was interesting to see multiple generations on the boat. There was never a shortage of great conversation.

WY: What were the big questions you wanted to ask on this trip, and so far, what are the findings?

DP: We wanted to know what we saw when we got away from these big gyres of floating plastic. As we get further from land, do we see more or less plastic? I was curious how the size of plastic compared with that of the organisms. When I pulled up nets of bell plankton, along with baby fish, eggs, and snails, I noticed that some of these organisms looked exactly like the pieces of plastic we were drawing up. It might be some type of biomimicry these organisms have to avoid being preyed on. At one point, I brought some images up and asked others: “What’s the animal, and what’s the plastic?

WY: So, is the concern here that other fish can be consuming the plastic—or microorganisms that have consumed the plastic—and ultimately, if humans eat these fish, then we can suffer from those repercussions? What fish are consumed by humans, and could be impacted?

DP: Any of your top predators, like tuna, marlin, and groupers, are impacted. But what people aren’t so aware of is that fish meals are also used to prepare animal feeds as a way to increase protein. That means we could be taking anchovy, sardine, or menhaden concentrate to feed to chickens or pigs. Those concentrates can also be used to feed things that are domestically raised, like rainbow trout, and salmon.

WY: What sentiments did this trip leave you with?

DP: This trip was really about bringing awareness of a very big topic: contaminants and plastics in our marine environment. Even in the really remote places of the world where we imagine that we may not have an influence, we are still seeing the remnants of what we’re doing on land. I feel even more strongly now that we have a responsibility to pay attention and really think about how our day-to-day choices affect life. Even in completely clear ocean, thousands of miles away from land, we were able to pull out 40 pieces of plastic. That’s just wrong. But we are very fortunate: one of our goals was to make the unseen seen, and we got the opportunity to do just that, and now we are bringing that awareness back into the world.

 Further Reading:

Next week, we will feature a selection of blog posts from the eXXpedition crew. Stay tuned for more about the inspiring research journey.

Image credit: Maria Arceo.

About The Author

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Diana M. Papoulias is a fish biologist and aquatic toxicologist. Dr. Papoulias recently retired after 25 years of conducting research on the adverse effects of chemical and non-chemical stressors on fish and aquatic health for the U.S. Geological Survey's contaminants and environmental health programs. The applied research conducted by Dr. Papoulias has been used by federal and state natural resource agencies to identify exposure and effects of pollutants at many levels of biological organization from the molecular level to the population level. Much of her work has focused on the large variety of environmental chemicals that affect the endocrine system of fish and amphibians and the adverse effects these chemicals have on reproduction. In her work, Dr. Papoulias strives to explain the connection between human and wildlife health and the consequences of polluting the planet. Currently, Dr. Papoulias works with Hughes Environmental Consulting, Newburyport, MA and with E-Tech International, a non-profit that provides scientific expertise to indigenous communities in Peru and elsewhere attempting to resolve environmental issues associated with natural resource extraction.