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Meeting of the minds

International researchers working to solve marine plastic pollution


By Kelly Foss

Three visiting international researchers at Memorial are working to come up with new ways to tackle plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) has awarded Memorial with three Blue Charter fellowships, which aim to support world-class research and innovation in marine plastics by providing 38 academics with short-term placements at member universities across the Commonwealth.

The fellows, who include Iwalaye (Ayo) Oladimeji, James Beament and Dr. Nigel Jalsa, are matched with local researchers for the duration of their three-month visit.

Climate change factors

Iwalaye (Ayo) Oladimeji
Iwalaye (Ayo) Oladimeji
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Iwalaye (Ayo) Oladimeji is a PhD student from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

She’s being hosted by Dr. Max Liboiron, Memorial’s associate vice-president (Indigenous research) pro tempore, and an assistant professor of geography in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Liboiron also directs the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist, anti-colonial lab that specializes in the grassroots environmental monitoring of marine plastic pollution.

“Ultraviolet light from the sun and an increase in wave action from sea level rise . . . are leading to an increase in microplastic concentration in our oceans.” — Iwalaye (Ayo) Oladimeji 

Ms. Oladimeji’s research investigates the influence of increasing temperature and microplastics concentration on microplastics ingestion and retention in marine invertebrates

“I saw a link in climate change contributing to more microplastics in the environment,” she said. “Ultraviolet light from the sun and an increase in wave action from sea level rise can break plastics down faster. Both are leading to an increase in microplastic concentration in our oceans. I want to know if, as temperature (due to increased metabolism) and concentration increases, animals will uptake and retain more, or not.”

Since arriving in Newfoundland and Labrador, Ms. Oladimeji has been able to undertake fieldwork at Quidi Vidi Lake  – a new area for the lab — and work with lab members on a methodology for processing samples for microplastics analysis.

“We’ve never done that before, and we should have, so she’s filling an important gap,” said Dr. Liboiron. “As a member of CLEAR, she’s been carrying forward our mission in a way that’s very in line with the lab.”

Ms. Oladimeji will be co-authoring several papers with Dr. Liboiron and CLEAR and she’s hoping to return to Memorial to do more work with the lab once her PhD is complete. In the meantime, they’re hoping she’ll continue to be a member of the team, planning to Skype in with other virtual members for team meetings.

Chemical intuition

James Beament
James Beament
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

James Beament is completing a PhD at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and Dr. Nigel Jalsa is an assistant professor at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.

The pair are being hosted by Drs. Fran Kerton and Chris Kozak in their Green Chemistry research lab, which works on using environmentally friendly methods to create biodegradable polymers to replace current plastics.

“The main problem with current plastics is that very little is biodegradable and with 34 per cent of all produced plastic ending up in the ocean, there is a huge persistence problem,” said Mr. Beament. “We need to make new biodegradable plastics that are designed with superior properties, so they tempt industry into commercialization. But, to do that, first we need to use chemical intuition to design something better.”

Dr. Nigel Jalsa
Dr. Nigel Jalsa
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Historically, biodegradable polymers have been designed to degrade in landfills and composts and not in the ocean, which poses problems for researchers.

“We need a better understanding of the critical parameters to control so that we can make sure the plastics we’re producing don’t persist in the ocean,” said Dr. Kerton. “Our research looks at how to design polymers so that, if they do get into the ocean, they are going to degrade.”

Since he’s been here, Mr. Beament has been able to introduce ideas based on work he’s done with his own polymer group in the U.K. and has been able to experiment with new techniques.

“I’ve been able to investigate a new series of catalysts and polymers, which I’ve wanted to do at Bath for years,” said Mr. Beament. “So, it’s certainly broadened my skills, which is really important as an early career researcher.”

Valuable relationships

For the past month, Dr. Jalsa has been trying to synthesize a range of polymers based on various sugar scaffolds using a green approach.

“Sugar is a naturally occurring substrate and we’re looking at using different types to build polymers that avoid the use of noxious solvents,” he said. “This is a new area of research for me, and the techniques are new to me, as well.”

Drs. Kerton and Kozak are hoping to further collaborate with the pair beyond their short tenure at Memorial. They have already submitted a proposal for funding that will allow them to go to Trinidad and Tobago later this year.

“When you go to a conference and meet people who work in a similar area, we’ll often get together, toss some ideas around or exchange business cards, but very rarely does it turn into something more tangible,” said Dr. Kozak. “But, when you send human beings you can actually move things forward.”

Adds Dr. Jalsa, “I think, over the long run, the personal relationships we’re developing will actually be more important than the work that will be done over this three-month period.”

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