By Chelsea M. Rochman
Ph.D. Student in Marine Ecology/ Ecotoxicology
San Diego State University/ UC Davis
Note: On January 25, 2011, the CSU Council on Ocean Affairs, Science and Technology (COAST) held its inaugural student-research showcase, with student researchers and faculty mentors discussing their work with CSU trustees and campus presidents. Chelsea Rochman took part in the showcase, sharing her research into the toxicological effects of plastic in the ocean. Rochman is one of about 20 students in the Marine Ecology/ Ecotoxicology Ph.D. program offered jointly by San Diego State and UC Davis. Students receive advising from faculty at both universities. The students’ research facilities are located on the San Diego campus.
It is predicted that more than 300 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide last year, and plastic production consumed 8 percent of global oil production. Much of this plastic, such as bags, plates and cups, has a useful lifetime of seconds, minutes or hours. Once discarded, it is easy to forget these items. Yet, disposable plastics can persist in the environment for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years.
This disconnected reality of society and our waste is what led me to join two expeditions to oceanic gyres, or areas in the water where the currents form circular patterns. Some of these gyres have earned an unfortunate nickname “garbage patch,” famous for confetti-like plastic debris no larger than a pencil eraser with sporadic larger pieces here and there.
The first expedition I joined collected many samples. We even found a nearly perfect stuffed animal dog floating among the trash. That toy is now on display at a San Diego aquarium as part of an exhibit on human impact on the environment. I am almost certain I have seen that exact stuffed animal for sale here in California.
As society comes to terms with our ecological impact, much of the discussion about trash in the ocean is mechanical – animals choking or being trapped by the debris. I study the toxicological effects. What impact is the plastic having on organisms and ecosystems?
This is an area that I am able to research at San Diego State and look forward to continuing in my career. I am encouraged by the passion that others have for this topic as I go to classrooms as a speaker. I was inspired to study marine ecology by a college professor, and it is my hope to someday teach at a university and inspire others to latch onto a similar environmental issue that motivates them to work hard to make a difference.