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Mason compiling research and writing during sabbatical year
Monday, November 30, 2015

Mason compiling research and writing during sabbatical year

Dr. Sherri Mason

Dr. Sherri Mason’s sabbatical year project focuses on writing and publishing articles related to groundbreaking research done on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Dr. Mason explained in her sabbatical summary that although there are journal articles noting plastic pollution dating back to the 1970s, plastic pollution as an active area of scientific research did not start until the turn of the 21st century. Captain Charles Moore was returning from a shipping voyage to Asia when, in passing through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, he notice a significant number of large debris items. He decided to come back and conduct a more scientific study of the debris and in 2001 his seminal paper on plastic pollution was published in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Mason added that Captain Moore’s work led to an increased awareness and focus on plastic pollution as an area of scientific research, but nearly all of this work, stemming over approximately 10 to 15 years, had focused on plastic within oceanic systems. Even after a United Nations report estimating that 80 percent of oceanic plastic pollution originated on land, and thus likely made its way through some type of freshwater system on its way from land to sea, even then the focus of research activities was on understanding the accumulation, circulation, photodegradation and impact of plastic pollution within saltwater systems.

In 2011, while teaching an environmental sciences course aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara, the flagship for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dr. Mason wondered (as she watched the waves) if anybody had surveyed the Great Lakes for plastic pollution. Upon coming back home and doing a literature review, she was amazed to discover that not only had no one looked within the Great Lakes, but further that there was a dearth of studies done on any freshwater system. In 2012, in collaboration with the 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit research and advocacy organization based in Los Angeles, Calif., she and colleagues conducted the first-ever survey for plastic pollution within the open-waters of the Great Lakes. The results of this study have been published in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Dr. Mason noted, “Of the 21 samples, from three of the five Great Lakes (Superior, Huron and Erie), we collected in this first survey, all but one contained plastic debris and 90 percent of plastic we found was within the Lake Erie samples. What was most surprising, however, was the size of the plastic: 80 percent of all the plastic we captured was microplastic, specifically that which was less than 1 mm in diameter. Some of this obviously resulted from photodegradation of larger plastic items, but given the perfectly spherical nature of the much of microplastics we sampled, we suspect that a significant fraction of it is being released directly into the Great Lakes as microplastic.”

Mason noted that since plastic pollution as an area of freshwater research is rather novel, and given that the Laurentian Great Lakes represent the largest freshwater system in the world, she has been fortunate to have poised her research group at the forefront of freshwater plastic pollution research, a position that has not only garnered us a significant amount of mass media coverage, but has also led to her being considered among her peers as one of the foremost authorities on the subject. The results of the initial survey of plastic pollution within the Great Lakes have led to a plethora of related research questions and activities, which her research group has been working on over the past three years. To date there are already have three publications related to their work.

During Mason’s academic year-long sabbatical, she and colleagues are working on writing up a backlog of data. It is anticipated that seven papers, five with Mason as the lead author, will be submitted within the academic year.

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