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Jackie Saturno

One graduate student's road to science and the study of ocean microplastics

By Moira Baird

Jackie Saturno likes a challenge – especially a scientific one.

A master’s student in the Fisheries Science and Technology program at the Marine Institute (MI), Ms. Saturno is investigating the role of fishing gear in generating microplastics in the ocean and the ingestion of these plastics by Atlantic cod.

One research goal is to determine how much microplastics fishing gear is producing and which types of gear create greater amounts of it.

Rewarding work

As a high school student growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, she took many science and math classes – subjects that didn’t come easily to her.

“I went completely overboard. That’s all I did in high school was math and sciences. It was something I had to work at, but it was rewarding.

“I always had a sense of achievement once I completed it and did well. Even if I didn’t do well, I would try my best to learn from my mistakes and try again the next time. I guess I’m naturally stubborn in that way.”

Prior to starting her master’s degree in 2017, she received an undergraduate degree in environmental science from the University of Guelph, and worked in forest habitat restoration in southern Ontario and as a field technician surveying Atlantic salmon in eastern Newfoundland.

“I’ve always wanted to get into the sciences. I wanted to see more women in science and I wanted to be part of that generation.”

Microplastic research

Ms. Saturno became interested in microplastics while working with the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research led by Dr. Max Liboiron, Memorial’s associate vice-president (Indigenous research) pro tempore. The lab is conducting marine plastic pollution research.

There, she spent a semester hunting for microplastic in the guts of Atlantic cod caught by Fogo Island fishermen. That work was funded by a grant from National Geographic magazine.

“It was a very smelly job for sure.”

Next, she set out to test nylon rope under the guidance of supervisor Dr. Brett Favaro, a research scientist and instructor with MI’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Research.

“We tried to look at the most common ropes that are used by fishermen.”

Ms. Saturno tested four kinds of rope – nylon, polyethylene, polypropylene, and a blend of both polyethylene and polypropylene – in a 1,200-litre tub of water. Using winches and pulleys, she dragged ropes over planks and rocks to recreate the kind of surfaces with which fishing gear ropes come into contact.

“We didn’t have a big budget to buy a machine to do this, even if such a thing existed.”

Then, she collected each piece of plastic that ended up in the tub, and was surprised to see how quickly the ropes started breaking down – particularly the polyethylene ones.

“What we’ve noticed is that fishing gear rope does abrade quite easily. I’m currently analyzing the data to understand what types of ropes won’t abrade as much.”

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