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Kea Payton is a graduate student in the Marine Biology program at the College of Charleston. We are pleased to be involved with Kea’s project and excited to feature her work here. Kea has joined us as a special guest on our routine sample runs while she gets her protocols worked out, but this week marks the official start of sampling for her thesis. We hope you enjoy learning about Kea and her studies on plastic pollution in this Saloon Session!

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-Tell us a little about your background – where are you from, what do you do, what’s your local waterway?

I was born and raised in Anderson, SC with some northern influences, as the majority of my family is from Illinois. I am currently a graduate student in the Marine Biology masters program at the College of Charleston. I have been interested in marine biology since I was in elementary school, though I also entertained ideas of being a veterinarian. Though I did not live by the ocean as a child, my family and I did a lot by the water, whether it was frequent visits to the coasts of SC, FL, and GA or taking the boat out on our local Lake Hartwell, a large 58,000 acre man-made lake that stretches across upstate SC and into Georgia.

-Tell us more about your thesis project.

My thesis project looks into the impact of microplastics on the Charleston Harbor estuary. Synthetic fibers and particles from polyester clothing, micro-scrubbers, and degraded plastic products find their way into the harbor and pose a potential threat to the local animals and food web dynamics. These plastics not only affect larger organisms such as fish, birds, and sea turtles, but the small particles affect some of the smallest marine animals that help fuel the food web, called zooplankton. In particular, I am looking at aggregation zones, known as tidal fronts, or points where the fresher water from the Ashley, Cooper, and Wando Rivers meet the incoming ocean tide. These points are thought to be areas where the exposure of zooplankton to microplastics may be greatest and thus a source of plastics entering the food web.

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-Tell us how you got involved with this kind of work. What brought you to the College of Charleston and the graduate program in Marine Biology?

After graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, I took a year off from school, but continued to work in the field of marine biology whether it be in a lab or enhancing my SCUBA skills. Marine biology is what I love, so I always had the plan to continue my education and get a Masters and even a PhD degree. Ironically, I wanted to continue my studies in tropical and coral reef ecology/ physiology; however, I found myself in a beautiful but less tropical area without many reefs. To keep my connection with the tropical reef system that I love, I sought out Dr. Phil Dustan to become my major advisor for my thesis. We entertained several ideas for a project, but thought it was best to stay local and build a project around mine and his interest of plastic pollution and its effects.

-We know water is important for your studies, but what does clean water mean to you on a personal level?

Water is the basis of life, without it we would not exist. So water means everything to me. From feeling weightless and humbled when underwater, to knowing that this medium means so much to the sustainability of this planet and its creatures. Clean water means splashing around in a bathtub full of toys as a child, having something to soothe me after a hard basketball practice, or even getting to enjoy learning about organisms and systems that are in a completely different element than myself. I have been truly fortunate to have clean water when I know there are people in this world that are exposed to contaminated water everyday. Even I have contributed to water pollution with the car I drive and the plastics my purchases are wrapped in, but I believe we as a people must work harder to reduce our footprint and help keep our water clean. Earth is covered in about 71% water and only about 2% of that is freshwater. We shouldn’t waste it.

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