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Women in science taking action: Environmental science student leads microplastic inventory at local beach

February 08, 2024

February 11th, 2024, marks the United Nations’ 9th International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day that celebrates and recognizes the contributions of women in STEM. This year’s theme is Women in Science Leadership: A new Era for Sustainability.

On January 27th, fourth-year environmental science student Helen Wong led a sample collection event at Kitsilano Beach, inviting the public and peers in her program to get hands-on experience in microplastic research.

Despite heavy rain, twenty attendees came out to apply some of what they have been learning in class, practicing their field-data collection skills and observing the impacts of microplastic on marine environments.

The event is an extension of Wong’s honours thesis project with her supervisors Karen Kohfeld and Anna Hippmann, a project she has been working on for several months that involves analyzing microplastic pollution at five different coastal locations in the Lower Mainland: Kitsilano Beach, Jericho Beach, Hadden Park, Sunset Beach and Barnet Marine Park.

The project was inspired by a course taught by Hippmann on ocean plastic pollution, which introduced Wong to its widespread presence in marine environments and the need for more research into the microplastics at sandy beaches.

Wong says the outdoors has played a big part in shaping who she is today, and she chose to study environmental science to protect nature so it can thrive. Now, her work is helping to determine the number and distinct types of microplastic pollution at these locations, which can be small and difficult to detect — as well as harmful to various organisms.

“This research can also help identify potential sources of plastic pollution that can be managed in a more environmentally friendly way,” she says.

The process involves digging, sorting and filtering samples during low tide using a metal sieve and a bucket of water.

“I shake the sieve to allow smaller sand and sediment particles to pass through; any pieces that float will be larger than one millimetre and could potentially be a microplastic,” Wong explains. “Then I squeeze, examine, and collect the pieces in glass vials to bring back to the laboratory to analyze.”  

Coordinating the outreach event at Kitsilano Beach allowed her to merge her passion for environmental education and advocacy, and she hopes it has inspired others to continue to learn more about microplastics and start a thesis project of their own.

Wong is graduating at the end of the semester, though she says she would like to continue her academic journey by pursuing a master’s degree next year:

“I hope to continue researching microplastics and finding ways to reduce our dependency on plastic.”