Great Lakes of Plastic

Alumni holding a turtle in a wetland area

Graduate student pioneers research of microplastics in Lake Ontario.

Tiny fragments of plastics, called microplastics, are in our water. They’re everywhere.

When Tammy Bleier ’22 was studying Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington she joined a non-profit called the Plastic Ocean Project. That’s where she first learned of the global plastic pollution problem. While their focus was oceans, as Rochester native Bleier began contemplating the status of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes

That question led her to search for a master’s program. She attended an open house at SUNY Brockport where she met Michael Chislock, Ph.D., an assistant professor. “We sat down and had a meeting, and I was like ‘hey, I really want to study microplastics in the Great Lakes.’ He was like ‘heck yeah, let’s do this,” Bleier recalled.

This was the start of Bleier’s legacy in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology: Microplastics research at Brockport.

“I decided to focus on microplastic pollution in Lake Ontario because that’s the one that we’re on, and we have a lot of easy access to it,” Bleier said. “Lake Ontario has always been near and dear to my heart because I grew up on it.”

She also accepted a position as a teaching assistant and was invited to present and lecture in even more classes at Brockport. Her lessons provided background information on how microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes is related to invasive species, climate change, wetland restoration and other topics that are part of Brockport’s curriculum. Ultimately, her work inspired more Brockport students to explore microplastics research at the undergraduate and graduate level.

“What drew me to Tammy as a grad student was that Tammy is very high energy and high enthusiasm and she is up to motivate people,” Chislock said. “She hadn’t taught previously, but her personality and ability to communicate complex topics to lay people made her a perfect fit for that position.”

About eight students joined her and Chislock in the field sampling tributaries and lakes. From the boat they would collect samples and then bring them back to the lab for processing.

“Basically, we would get out all of the debris organized and just get it down to those tiny plastic particles,” Bleier explained. From there the particles would be categorized and then taken to Cornell University, to go under a microscope that would show what the piece was made of.”

Blier also became one of 74 fellows in the Sea Grant’s John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship (Knauss Fellowship). Her placement was with the United States Office of International Activities, part of the Department of Transportations, Maritime Administration who are responsible for coordinating participation in international activities.

“The fellowship has been a rewarding, challenging, and exciting experience that will undoubtedly prove useful in my career. I’ve learned about policy and decision making, but also important and transferable skills such as leadership, communication, and strategic planning,” she said.

While Bleier doesn’t plan to pursue policy she says, “it was still really cool to see how science works its way into policy making decisions.”

Back to Brockport Today

Author: Meghan Finnerty

Posted: August 18, 2022