Photo Credit: Katlin Bowman
Edited with Permission by Frontier
This week, Into the Wild meets Katlin Bowman, an oceanographer who studies mercury chemistry in marine environments, currently researching the link between plastic pollution and mercury levels. Katlin has spent nearly a year of her life at sea, crossing the Atlantic, cruising through the Pacific Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, and explored the deep-ocean seafloor in her research efforts. Her work has helped scientists from all over the world understand how mercury concentrations have changed throughout history, and here, she shares her thoughts on marine conservation, plastic pollution and travelling.
1. What inspires you to go on these extreme expeditions?
I am inspired by the unknown. These far reaching expeditions take me to places where no one has measured mercury and it's always so exciting to discover something new about our environment.
2. What are the risks and dangers you face in your work?
Working on a research boat in rough waters poses a lot of risks and dangers. First, we are moving big (and heavy!) equipment over the side of the boat which requires winches and a-frames. We put a lot of time and care into doing this safely, everyone has to wear steel-toed boots, a hard hat, and life vest during these operations. If the waves are too big, the captain will call off all operations and we'll wait for calmer water to continue. As a chemist, I'm also working with acids in a moving shipboard laboratory which requires extra care.
3. You are obviously very well-travelled. Do you have a favourite place that you’ve visited?
My favorite place that I've visited is Kenya - I did a public health field study program there as an undergraduate (with the School for Field Studies). We went on safari and there was something so powerful about seeing wild elephants, roaming the land where they belong and where they are in charge. It was my first time seeing a truly wild place and I'll always cherish that experience. My favorite place that I've traveled as an oceanographer is Tahiti! I have a really fond memory of biking around Moorea for hours, stopping at little beaches and buying fresh pineapple juice off the street.
Photo Credit: flickr | Bob the Lomond
4. In your opinion, what is the most pressing conservation issue the world is facing today?
I worry most about the whales, they are such an important part of the ocean ecosystem and because their territory spans large sections of the globe they are difficult to protect.
5. To what extent would you say mercury is a threat to marine species and to our food system?
Mercury is a threat to global fish resources that affects some populations more than others. Even as a mercury scientist, I eat fish! But I don't eat it all the time and I avoid top predator species (i.e. swordfish). Fish protein is a food staple for many populations across the globe that doesn’t have the luxury of choosing other protein options: these are the people that are threatened the most.
6. Does the plastic pollution issue exacerbate mercury levels, and do you think there is a good solution to the plastic issue?
Photo Credit: Katlin Bowman
This is one of the questions that I am pursing with my latest research project! I collected micro plastic debris from Lake Erie (near Cleveland, Ohio) and San Francisco Bay and in the next few months I will be measuring how much mercury is adsorbed to the plastic. The best solution to plastic pollution in the ocean is to stop it at its source. Everyone can do their part by reducing single-use plastic, but the biggest issues lie with developing countries that do not have proper waste management infrastructure. Helping those nations manage their waste will make the biggest impact.
7. You’ve published a book, ‘To the Top of the World: One Scientist Expedition to the North Pole’. Has this opened many doors for you or changed your career path in any way?
Co-authoring this book with a journalist was a really great lesson in science communication. I was accustomed to speaking/writing for the public, but explaining mercury chemistry to kids??! That was a whole new challenge. I wouldn't say the book has changed my career path in any way, but it has inspired me to continue writing and reaching out to young people to show them how awesome it is to be a scientist!
8. What is the most impressive deep-sea species you’ve seen, and what makes it so interesting?
Anything that can survive in the dark, under pressure is amazing!
9. What will your next adventure be?
I'm participating in a deep sea expedition...through telecommunication! The expedition will study deep sea hydrothermal vents in the North Pacific Ocean - I'm interested in measuring how much mercury is released to the deep ocean from these systems. I won't actually be on the ship, but will participate as a shore-based scientist through video conferencing. Telepresence is an innovative way used by many oceanographers to increase access to these types of expeditions.
Photo Credit: Katlin Bowman
10. Finally, do you have any advice for our volunteers who are travelling or volunteering abroad for the first time, who perhaps wishes to go on expeditions or work with marine conservation?
If you're traveling or volunteering abroad for the first time, my advice is to wander. Hit up a few of the tourist spots, but also spend time off the beaten path, sit a while and just observe, talk to the locals. Experience the place, don't just see. (Be safe, of course!). If you're interesting in going on a marine expedition, start by volunteering or working as a research assistant. Prove your worth as a marine scientist and keep building on that to bigger and bigger expeditions.