Interview With Miriam Goldstein - In Which We Discuss Plastic Debris, Cool Sea Creatures, Science Usability And More

miriam goldsteinI have been following a blog called Deep Sea News for a while now. It is one of my favorite blogs to read and it is catered for the masses (me) as well as for the scientists. Miriam Goldstein, one of the authors, has agreed to take some time away from her research for an interview with me. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!

Here goes:

How and why did you decide to become a scientist and what lead you to get involved in ocean science?

M.G: I grew up in New Hampshire, and always enjoyed going to the tide pools as a kid. But I really fell in love with marine science in 9th grade, when I was fortunate enough to participate in a program at the University of New Hampshire called “Math and Marine Science.” I had no idea that people could learn about weird slimy marine creatures for a living, and I’ve been hooked ever since!

I understand that your current area of research is the abundance and ecological effects of plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre Commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage patch. Could explain a little bit about what this garbage patch is (and isn’t) and what you are hoping to accomplish with your research?

M.G: Yarrr, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (I always feel like I should talk like a pirate when I say that.) The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not really a “patch” - it’s actually a high concentration of nearly invisible plastic crumbs. There are some larger pieces, such as crates and buoys and such, but the vast majority of the trash is tiny. We use a very fine-meshed net to catch it in order to measure it.
The North Pacific Central Gyre, where the “garbage patch” is located, is a world that lacks hard surfaces. The seafloor is 12,000 feet down, and there isn’t any seaweed that floats around on the surface as there is in the Atlantic. I’m interested in the effect of adding all these hard surfaces to this watery world. I am looking at the effect of all these plastic particles on the zooplankton (tiny floating animals) and on the fouling invertebrates (animals such as barnacles that live directly on the plastic).

You are particularly focused on the impact this debris would have on plankton - what have you found out so far?

M.G: Still working on it - I’ll definitely blog about the results when they come out in the scientific literature!

I read on the Seaplex blog that the plastic is really tiny little fragments as opposed to huge pieces - is this because plastic garbage has been worn down over time by the ocean? How likely is it that these plastic fragments will totally disappear or become so small the have no impact at all?

M.G: Yes, that’s exactly right - the plastics get worn down due to a combination of sunlight and waves. Sunlight, particularly UV light, makes the plastic very brittle, and the waves break it apart. On SEAPLEX we picked up palm-sized pieces that would literally crumble into plastic dust in our hands.
Right now there’s no way of telling what will become of those particles. Becoming very small may not be a solution, since most of the plankton are also very small. Eventually, bacteria may be able to break down plastic, but right now there’s no evidence of that happening.

One of the reasons I was thrilled to find Deep Sea News is because its so readable, even to someone like myself who is not at all involved in the scientific community. I know you were pleased that I found your blog to be so understandable. After reading back for several months I gather that communication between the scientific community and the rest of the world is one of your “pet subjects”. Why do you think this communication is so important?

M.G: I care a lot about science communication for two reasons. One is basically financial - big oceanographic expeditions like SEAPLEX are incredibly expensive, which means they cannot exist without governmental grants. That means my research has been funded by the taxpayers, and so I think it’s only fair that I tell them what we’ve done with that money!
The second reason is that science is just so **** cool. I never get tired of seeing all the crazy animals that come up in my plankton net, or learning about an exciting new discovery. Because of my training (also funded in part by the taxpayers!), I have ability to read the formal scientific literature and pick out the awesome bits to share. Oftentimes people have not been exposed to science outside of boring textbooks, and don’t realize that science is a living, breathing, messy process. I think most people are interested in science, whether that interest is highbrow (how does the world work?) or lowbrow (Sex! Violence! Poop!). They just need a friendly guide to get them there. I love being that guide - especially I’m decidedly lowbrow.

I know there have been several attempts to make science more sexy with cheerleaders and rock stars (Can’t say I connect to the cheerleader attempt...) What do you think of those attempts and do you think there is anyway to broaden the communication between the general public and the scientists that doesn’t include gimmicks?

MG: I think my blogmate Kevin Zelnio put it best - more science communication is better, and diverse strategies will reach diverse audiences. I think our focus should be on funding a wide variety of communications strategies - different people respond to different things.

Why do you think this is important?

M.G: We are in desperate need of science literacy. Science is the way that we understand how the world works, and our world is changing very, very fast. If we want to make the future of humanity a pleasant one, we need to make political decisions that are informed by science.

I am amazed at the variety of weird and wonderful creatures that live in the oceans. Do you have a favorite creature? Do you think that any of the more exotic ones could be kept well in a home aquarium? I was thinking of those angels in Antarctica

velella jellyfishM.G: My favorite creature changes all the time. Right now I think I’m most in love with the by-the-wind sailor jellyfish, Velella velella. They live on the surface of the ocean and have a little sail that sticks up out of the water, and just drift with the wind. And they’re a lovely dark purple!
It’s very hard to keep open-ocean animals in aquaria. There are certain species that we can keep alive in the lab, but most open-ocean animals die right away or only live for a couple days at the most, particularly the squishy ones like jellies or pteropods (pelagic snails). There are some home tanks for keeping jellies or even those “angels in Antarctica” (which are actually predatory pelagic snails called Clione), but they are very expensive, and I don’t know how well they work. I think it’s probably best to just enjoy other people’s work, like spectacular jellyfish exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

...............................? What is the question or questions you wish someone would ask you, and what would your answer be?

M.G: I think you covered all the bases! Thanks!

photo of Miriam: Annie Crawley (DiveIntoYourImagination.com)

So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.

10 Comments:

  • admin: > Eventually, bacteria may be able to break down plastic, but right now there’s no evidence of that happening.
    Question - I know there have been development of bacteria to control oil spills. Do you know if people are working on this now? Is there any bacteria that break plastic outside of the ocean?
  • johnarthur: Thanks for posting that interview. Miriam Goldstein must be a very special person. Sometimes I wonder if the scientific community will prevail over the science deniers. In spite of all the evidence, many people refuse to recognize our destructive effect on planet ecology.
  • Miriam Goldstein: Hey admin,
    There’s some evidence that plastic will break down bacteria in ideal conditions on land - bacteria like it dark, warm, and moist. <a target='_blank' rel='nofollow' href="http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/05/teen-decomposes/">There was a kid who did this</a> for his science class project! However, the ocean is pretty much the opposite of ideal for many bacteria - cold and filled with cell-busting UV light. Also, engineering a plastic-eating bacteria has kind of a science-fiction downside - what if one got loose in the bilge of a fiberglass boat?
    Bacteria are amazing and adaptable, so I bet that the ones that naturally live in the ocean will figure out how to eat plastic eventually. But that might not be on a timescale that would be helpful to humans - 10,000 years in the future is just a teeny tiny moment in terms of evolution.
    And johnarthur - thanks! But really, I’ve just been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.
  • jade: Thank you Michelle for this interview and thank you Miriam for being our guide in the scientific world. I already put your blog on my favorites list.
  • Michelle: Didn’t they use some kind of bacteria to help with the oil spill in the gulf? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=gulf-oil-eating-microbes-slide-show
  • admin: > what if one got loose in the bilge of a fiberglass boat?
    WOW! Good point!
    > 10,000 years in the future is just a teeny tiny moment in terms of evolution.
    I would never guess bacteria evolution is so long - their generation period is a friction of large animals’ generation. Do you know how did they develop the oil eating bacteria?
  • Miriam Goldstein: Yes, there are oil eating bacteria - both ones that naturally occur (as in Michelle’s link) in hydrocarbon-rich environments, and ones that are grown in the lab to help with oil spills. Neither are a panacea - they help, but can’t clean up most of the spill. More info: http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/the-human-condition/2010/05/04/oil-spill-answers-are-we-going-to-use-microbes-to-destroy-the-oil-if-so-how-would-that-work.html
    Bacteria do evolve very fast, but figuring out how to eat plastic is a pretty complicated problem! But who knows...it will be fun to see what they do!
  • Michelle: You are talking a good few thousand years, though, aren’t you?
  • johnarthur: I still like the idea of a boat eating bacteria.
  • Miriam Goldstein: Michelle - I am not a bacteria expert, but probably so. And there’s never any guarantees.

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