Who I am
I grew up in a small town called Haltern am See in north-western Germany. My dad used to be a professional swimmer and passed his passion on to me and my sister. As a result, I spent most of my childhood in or on the water and it has become the element I feel the most connected to and fascinated by. Like all children, my sister and I were tireless when it came to asking questions about the world around us, but my parents left not a single question unanswered. If they couldn’t give us an answer, we looked it up together. I think this is how my curiosity was fuelled and my researcher’s mind was born. After graduating from high school, I spent three months in a turtle volunteering programme in Uruguay. There I witnessed the impact of plastic pollution on the marine world that fascinates me so much. Day after day we collected stranded turtles from the beaches, most of the strandings a consequence of plastic pollution. It was then that I made the decision to dedicate my future to the preservation of our seas.
Where I work
I am now based at the National University of Ireland, Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, where I am conducting my PhD studies on the impacts of microplastics on pelagic species. Most of the sample analysis I do in the lab on campus, but when I go off to collect samples you can find me all around the world. Through a science communication and outreach workshop I had the pleasure of meeting Giulia, who was working with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme and told me that she has access to some pretty unique samples: whale shark poo. She sent me one of her samples and we found a significant amount of microplastics in it. This was a shocking, yet not totally unexpected find. As pressure from tourism increases and because of the Maldives’ geographical location, waste management on the islands has become a challenge and microplastics in particular have been recorded as being abundant in the sea there. This is especially worrying considering that the Maldives provide a unique habitat not only to the endangered whale shark, but also to many other rare marine species.
What I do
Microplastics have previously been shown to have negative impacts on the health of some fish species and may add another stressor to the endangered whale shark, which in this region has been hunted for its meat and oil-filled livers and subjected to illegal finning, and nowadays also suffers as a result of poor management of the tourism industry. Wanting to investigate this additional threat to the species, we developed a project to look at microplastic ingestion by whale sharks in the Maldives by analysing their faeces. We also hope to work out whether whale sharks ingest microplastics directly from the water or via their plankton prey. In the next stage of the project we will use our findings to open a dialogue with the public and key stakeholders, with the aim of raising awareness of the issue of plastic pollution, stimulating action and improving the conservation of this marine ecosystem. Key for us is to put our findings into a real-world context and try to find solutions with the people who will be most affected.