Author: Fabiana Franco, MSci Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen
Project Title: Microplastic distribution and their controls in the Tay Estuary
Hello, my name is Fabiana and I am in the last year of my MSci in Biological Sciences at the University of Aberdeen. After spending last summer working as a laboratory assistant at the University of Aberdeen and having completed my Honour’s Project, I realised how much I like working in the lab and doing research and decided I want to continue my academic path by pursuing a PhD. In the past years, I have developed a passion for studying how anthropogenic stressors affect individuals at a behavioural and molecular level, with an inclination towards looking at microplastic pollution. During my years at the university, however, I did not get the chance to work on microplastics and wanted to gain some more laboratory expertise regarding them before applying to PhDs, so, when I was told by a friend about this QUADRAT REP, it felt like it was a terrific opportunity and applied straight away! When I got in, I was thrilled as not only I was about to gain some fieldwork and laboratory experience regarding microplastic pollution, but being an interdisciplinary project, I would have had the chances to work within the School of Geosciences and learn new techniques I would not have otherwise.
On my first week, I met with Rachel, my supervisor, and she explained to me the project aims and the importance of this study. Microplastic distribution on sediments is mostly studied on deep water environments, whereas only fewer studies concentrate of fluvial systems, so this project would be the baseline for future research within the department and I was excited to take part in this novel study!
We began the placement by delineating sampling sites along the river Tay across three depositional environments (fluvial, estuarine and coastal). We then spent a couple of days carrying out fieldwork by doing a survey of the area and acquiring sediment and water samples. Once, we got back in the lab, the real work began. For the water samples, we first filtered them and used a density separation solution to collect microplastics, which were then analysed under a microscope. For the sediment samples, the work had a couple of extra steps, with an enormous amount of funnelling that lasted for six weeks. We first dried our samples and separated them according to their grainsize. Samples were also sent to the Chemistry Department for some grainsize analysis using laser spectrometry. We also decided to remove the organic matter in the samples, a process which had some minor setbacks, but everything went smoothly in the end, especially thanks to a wonderful lab technician that was always ready to help us and give us advice when needed. Finally, I acquired my microplastics from the samples the same way as from the water samples and proceeded to spend the next couple of weeks looking at them under a microscope and at taking their pictures and measurements. After finishing collecting my data, I had the chance to analyse them and create an in-depth presentation of my results, and with the help of Rachel, we also created a thorough map on ArcGIS depicting microplastic presence relative to sample grainsize, organic matter percentage and the presence of nearby wastewater treatment plants (which are one of the major sources of microplastic inputs in rivers).
Overall, this experience has been wonderful as not only I had the chance to work on something I am passionate about, but I also had the chance to work with amazing people, learning new skills and developing a clearer idea on my future steps in my career. I would highly recommend this experience placement to anybody!