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Graduate Student Receives Prestigious Tibor T. Polgar Fellowship

Award supports research on microplastics pollution in Hudson River

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Graduate Student Erika Bernal in front of her research poster on Zooplakton Community Structure - a "Tale of Two" New Jersey Estuaries

The ocean has always fascinated marine biology student Erika Bernal. “The ocean provides so many important services and we also depend on the species within it,” she says. “Yet despite this importance, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean. That’s amazing to me.”

Bernal, a dual BS/MS degree student who received her BS in May, will be spending her summer conducting research for her master’s thesis on the Hudson River and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab in Sandy Hook. Her work is funded by a Tibor T. Polgar Fellowship program grant.

The prestigious fellowship program, which is a student research program of the Hudson River Foundation in cooperation with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, supports study of all aspects of the Hudson River while providing grantees with training in scientific and public policy research.

Working collaboratively with the NOAA lab, Bernal will study the ability of oysters to filter and/or digest microplastic pollutants. Microplastics, which are a major source of marine pollution, can include pieces broken off of larger plastic debris that are less than five millimeters long, microfibers released when synthetic fibers are washed, as well as the miniscule microbead exfoliants in toothpaste and other cleansers that readily pass through water filtration systems.

“My project involves exposing oysters to four different types of plastics and monitoring them at regular intervals to see if there are any changes in their behavior and their ability to filter the water,” she explains. “Oysters are basically ecosystem engineers and so the buildup of plastic in their systems would not only affect the oysters themselves, but also would affect the animals that feed on them. If we find that there is a difference in the oysters’ activity from a certain type of plastic, it can be extremely important for waste management.”

Bernal’s Montclair State advisor, Biology Professor Paul Bologna, will also be serving as her Polgar Fellowship advisor along with Beth Sharack from the NOAA lab. “I am so proud of Erika, a hard-working student and mom, who has been awarded this fantastic fellowship to pursue important research on microplastics,” Bologna says. “As Erika is the second Montclair State student in a row to work closely with the NOAA lab, this is another great opportunity for further partnering between the University and NOAA.”

Student, Researcher, Mom and Entrepreneur

When Bernal begins her fellowship in June, she will be juggling her research with the challenges of being a mother and of running a successful personalized tee shirt and party decoration business from her home.

“I barely get any sleep,” she laughs. “I do most of my work and studying at night, but I’m also up really early because I have a 2-year-old daughter to take care of. Without help from my daughter’s father and some family members I wouldn’t be able to do all this – so I’m super grateful.”

Bernal is eager to begin collecting oysters from along the Hudson River, which she will then feed and analyze at the NOAA lab. “I’m really looking forward to the feeding experiment,” she says. “It will be interesting to see whether or not the selected polymers have different effects and if microplastics build up in different organs or regions of the oysters.”

Even more important to Bernal, who relishes both lab and field work, is having the opportunity to contribute to the understanding of the deleterious effects of plastic and microplastics on aquatic systems. “Overall, I want to do something that’s going to make a difference in how people view the ocean and even be a part of efforts to reduce marine pollution.”