Maiden Blog – Dr. Emily Duncan
I am a conservation biologist working on plastic pollution in aquatic environments and am currently Post-doctoral Researcher, University of Exeter, UK. I have worked on multiple international projects investigating what impacts the current levels of plastics pollution are having on marine ecosystems and threatened species including marine turtles. I am both inspired by the marine environment and all the amazing life within it. However, it is extremely apparent the impact we as humans are having on this incredible planet. Therefore I work towards contributing to understanding and resolving this.
My journey into working within marine science started while I volunteered on the Marine Turtle Conservation Project in Cyprus. There I discovered my fascination for marine turtles and understanding how to conserve them. This led me to complete a PhD investigating impacts of plastic pollution on marine turtles. This included research into microplastics, why turtles might eat plastics, how they become entangled in discarded fishing gear and plastic on turtle nesting beaches. During this time I had the opportunity to travel and work in the USA and Australia. This allowed me to visit extremely beautiful areas of the natural world. One of my favourite places was Raine Island on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It is a remote island with hundreds of seabirds and turtles nesting surrounded by stunning reef.
After completing my PhD I joined eXXpedition, all-female sailing voyages exploring the impact of plastic pollution in our oceans to be their Head of Science for the North Pacific Gyre voyage (Hawaii – Vancouver). We sailed 3000 miles across the Pacific Ocean and I was in charge of coordinating the sample collection for multiple international research plastic projects. This allowed me a combine both passions, my sailing and science. The opportunity to travel under sail to some of the most remote parts of the ocean was incredible. A sense of how vast and powerful the ocean is was life changing. However even thousands of miles from land, plastic was pervasive. The ocean may have looked like an endless blue expanse but it was a soup of tiny plastic fragments when we sampled the water. Seeing this was both moving and motivating to continue work to understand the impact of this pollution on vulnerable oceanic turtles. These turtles go to these remote areas in our worlds’ ocean to develop and grow. However, these areas are now some of the most polluted with plastic globally.
More recently I was a scientist on National Geographic: Sea to Source Expeditions. This was an international, female-led team of scientists on an expedition to better understand and document how plastic waste travels along major rivers. The expedition was from the sea in Bangladesh, along the whole length of the Ganges River to its source in the Himalayas in India. It was an incredible experience to travel and see the extreme changes in landscapes. This project included microplastic sampling, understanding how fishers use plastic nets and using novel technology to track the movement of plastic pollution. As with all the teams I have ever worked with I have made lifelong friends. The people I get to meet are one of the best parts of being a researcher. I have worked with many inspirational women in science who in turn inspire me to keep working towards understanding and creating solutions to plastic pollution.
In the future I hope to work to tackle conservation issues while building sustainable local livelihoods at the same time. I feel passionately about marrying high-quality science with community engagement. To address the use of plastic and centralise humans in the solutions as well as understanding the impacts it is having on biodiversity. I also look forward to the opportunity to be a part of more international female-led expeditions, especially those that join sailing with science, education and environmental awareness like the Maiden Factor. My experiences have led me to want to work with communities more directly, working with young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, as the Maiden Factor does. I would like to inspire them and develop their skills and knowledge to enable them to work in conservation biology and marine environmental protection. I believe in the importance of empowerment of local communities to work towards protecting their local environment, make changes to plastic use and provide solutions to other environmental issues facing the globe.