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Rachel Lancaster


Rachel received her BSc in Biology from Bethel University in 2018 with a focus in Environmental Biology. The following year (2019) Rachel received a MSc  in Biology with focus on Conservation Biology from Union University. 

Rachel joined the M3eL lab at USM in the Fall of 2023.

Characterizing micro- and nano-sized plastic pollution in the Gulf of Mexico

Plastics have become the industry standard due to their lightweight and versatile characteristics, making them a part of our everyday life. Plastics are made from synthetic organic macromolecules (polymer) and designed to be durable and resistant to degradation; consequently their decomposition rate is extremely low, leading to the accumulation of plastic waste in the environment. Consequently, plastics are currently regarded as one of the top threats to marine ecosystems. While the threat of entanglement and suffocation in plastic debris, ingestion of fragments by birds, turtles, fish, and marine mammals are well documented, the extent to which MPs and NPs compromise environmental sustainability remains unclear. Studies on relatively large marine plastics (> 100 – 700 µm) found that their abundance increases rapidly with decreasing size. Extrapolating this inverse abundance-size distribution into smaller sizes implies a significant amount of plastic remnants could exist in the micro (MP; 1 - 5000 µm) and nano (NP; < 1 µm) size ranges in the environment. However, little is known about the concentration and size distribution of MP and NP in aquatic environments. This is largely due to the lack of methodology and analytical instrumentation to identify and quantify MP and NP rapidly and effectively. 

Rachel is employing a newly developed method to measure and characterize the abundance and distribution of various types of plastic in the coastal waters of MS and AL and within aquatic organism's that support local fisheries, with particular focus on understanding potential disparities in the degree of contamination across communities based on socioeconomic status and racial demographics.

This work is part funded as part of Advancing Social and Environmental Equity through Plastics Research: Education, Innovation, and Inclusion (ASPIRE) led by Dr. Zhe Qiang from USM's School of Polymer Science and Engineering. 

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