New fellowship supports study of marine plastics pollution

by Lorie Gomez

Plastics in the environment are doubling every 10 years according to research by VIMS Professor Rob Hale in the Aquatic Health Sciences Department. That’s not too surprising given that the use of plastics has increased exponentially since it began being mass produced in the 1940s and 50s. Today plastics are found in everyday items such as furniture, carpeting, electronics, cars, and containers, and plastic microbeads are even ingredients in products such as skin lotions and toothpaste. Now these plastic products, slow to degrade, are in our waters, including local waters like Chesapeake Bay, and collecting on shore and in marine life.

Filter feeders like the iconic Chesapeake Bay oyster, which filters immense amounts of water in search of digestible food, are disproportionally impacted by marine plastics as they increasingly consume nutrient-devoid, indigestible microplastics. These plastics may then be passed up the food chain – including to humans – where the additives and pollutants can accumulate in and cause harm to our bodies.

As an avid advocate of the Bay and its tributaries, Peg Freeman became increasingly aware of the problems that plastics are presenting to our river environment. Following in her husband Bob's footsteps, the family decided they should contact VIMS to see if any research was being done to attack the problem. When presented with the idea of funding a student who could study and find a solution to marine plastic pollution, the Freeman family was pleased to help insure VIMS could attract the best and brightest talent. Their $250,000 gift to VIMS will fully fund a student at the School of Marine Science.

The partnership between VIMS and the family’s foundation creates a bridge between academic research, public interest, and effective action on plastic pollution. VIMS is currently recruiting a top student to focus on the issue. The fellowship will provide funding to channel the student’s passion into the intensive study of this subject as part of their PhD research. The fellow will partner with the outreach program at VIMS to share knowledge on marine plastic pollution with the public to have a wider impact on the community and work alongside Dr. Robert Hale, professor of Marine Science in the VIMS Department of Aquatic Health Sciences.

“This research is really for future generations,” Freeman said, thinking of her grandchildren and great grandchild. “The rivers and bay are extremely important, and this research will be very significant in taking care of them.” 

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