Yet the endeavor is critical. Suckling identifies plastic particles down to 10 micrometers — about the length of the longest human chromosome or the size of a cloud water droplet. Most researchers stop looking once plastics reach smaller than 350 micrometers. Marine life has no limits and may digest any plastic material in its environment regardless of size. Suckling wonders what that means for the health of the animals that are ingesting these particles, and what that means for the entire food web and larger ecosystem. Because most plastic eventually sinks to the bottom of the seabed, Suckling seeks answers by looking at animals living on the seabed such as oysters — a critically important ecological species to Narragansett Bay and economically to the state — as well as sea urchins, which she has long studied, are prevalent in many parts of the world and a key part of the food chain. Her quest for answers differs from others. Whereas some researchers essentially feed animals more and more plastics until they elicit a physiological response, Suckling uses amounts of plastics in line with those she finds in the real world through her exacting collection and testing process. Known as environmentally relevant concentrations of contaminants, the technique offers a realistic, rather than hypothetical, look at the effects of plastics on marine life right now. “We need to know more about how marine animals are interacting with and responding to these environmentally relevant plastics,” Suckling said. “Then we can build a baseline of knowledge on which we can make informed decisions regarding plastics pollution and managing ecosystems.”

Suckling’s approach to student training is an important part of her work and is integrated into her research efforts. “I’m really passionate about providing students an opportunity for experiential learning with plastics research,” she said. Cara Magill ’21 won a biological sciences undergraduate research grant through the Harold A. Riemenschneider Scholarship fund and is now working with Suckling to design and carry out a research project. The project aims to determine the impact of microplastic particles on sea urchins. Preliminary results show the urchins are interacting with microplastics in unexpected and previously unknown ways though Magill and Suckling are still reviewing the results before releasing details. “Cara has just accepted a funded graduate research assistantship on plastics pollution at the Center for Marine Debris Research, Hawaii Pacific University,” said Suckling. “Her experience with the plastics pollution class and the experiential learning makes URI undergraduates competitive in graduate schools.” Working with students, Suckling realized they needed skills to measure plastics pollution in water, so she launched a course focused on helping students learn the rigorous laboratory techniques required to produce professional, respected results. With invited guest speakers, she weaves in how that pollution impacts marine life, discusses public policy around controlling plastics pollution and shows the lifecycle of consumer projects from raw materials to disposal. “All these different perspectives are about giving students a broad understanding behind plastics and other materials so it can help them with their

Page 38 | The University of Rhode Island { MOMENTUM: RESEARCH & INNOVATION }

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