I am a Doctoral Candidate in the Erasmus Mundus Program Marine Ecosystem Health and Conservation (MARES). My ongoing fascination with the natural environment is the thing that propels me to study it and focus on key environmental issues such as pollution. In the past, I’ve investigated the impact of chemical contaminants on human health and ecosystem well-being in wetland ecosystems in Trinidad. Currently, my research is focused on microplastics in the world’s oceans. In order to sample the various compartments of the oceans for microplastics, I’ve participated in expeditions in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. I firmly believe that scientists must make the effort to merge research with outreach and education if they are to effect positive change regarding environmental issues.
From the Caribbean Sea to the Arctic Ocean
By: La Daana Kanhai
Looking back, I often wonder, ‘How did an ordinary young woman from a tiny Caribbean island end up studying microplastics in the Arctic Ocean?’ For the sake of brevity, I will tell you that as a child, I was simply fascinated by the natural environment. This fascination was born primarily through the opportunities I had to interact with nature during my formative years, whether it was exploring my family’s garden, the countryside where I lived or the beaches we visited. It was therefore very natural for me to gravitate towards subjects (geography, biology) where I learnt more about the natural world. During my high school years, I became acutely aware of the fact that the natural environment which I was so passionate about was being negatively affected by man’s activities and that issues such as climate change, pollution and deforestation were wreaking havoc on ecosystems.
As a teenager, I already knew that I wanted to be an Environmental Scientist. I was fortunate in that both of my parents supported this decision. At university, I studied Environmental and Natural Resource Management and Chemistry and it was during this time that my interest in Environmental Pollution was piqued. After graduating, I had my first foray into the field of Science Communication during my one year stint as an Education Officer. I then entered the world of research and focused on investigating chemical contaminants in wetland ecosystems and assessed the threat that these contaminants potentially posed to human health and ecosystem well-being. During the period of publishing my research, I took the opportunity to get some experience in the field of academia as a Teaching Assistant and then as an Instructor.
My quest to learn more about the natural environment and focus on key environmental issues propelled me to apply for an Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to research microplastics in the oceans. Since the field of microplastic pollution was brand new to me, I was propelled to read published literature and familiarize myself on what had already been done. All of my PhD research has focused on addressing key knowledge gaps in the field of microplastic pollution. My first microplastic sampling was carried out in the Atlantic Ocean during a transit of the RV Polarstern from Bremerhaven, Germany to Cape Town, South Africa. Here we investigated how phenomena such as coastal upwelling potentially influenced microplastics in the oceans. One area for which there was very little information about microplastics was Polar Regions. Being cognizant of this, I took part in the Arctic Ocean 2016 expedition under the Early Career Scientist Programme of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat onboard icebreaker Oden. During that expedition, I sampled sub-surface waters, sediment and sea ice for microplastics. Based on this sampling, we discovered that although the Arctic Ocean is remote and seemingly pristine, it has not been immune to the entry of plastic debris as every single environmental compartment that we investigated has been contaminated by microplastics.
The part of me that was fascinated by the natural environment as a child is ever present. I was fortunate in that I was able to bear witness to the indescribable beauty of the Arctic Ocean. Yet will future generations have this opportunity? I firmly believe that the issue of plastics in the oceans is one that was created by man and one that can be solved by man. Each of us needs to take action to figure out how we can be better stewards of this beautiful planet that we call home!
You can catch La Daana Kanhai on her soapbox at The Spanish Arch, Galway on 7th July as part of Soapbox Science Galway 2018, where she will be giving a talk entitled “Microplastics in the oceans: Why the fuss?”
Follow her on twitter @LaDaanaKanhai