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Next Generation: Ana Sosa on the microorganisms found on plastics

March 7, 2019

Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico

Advisor: Dr. Feng Chen, Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology

What are you researching? I’m a microbial ecologist. This means that I study where and how microorganisms live, including bacteria and microalgae. I’m currently working on a project involving the microbial communities that live on small pieces of plastic in the Chesapeake Bay. I have been identifying the microorganisms found on plastics to understand how they are affecting their environment. For instance, are they photosynthesizing or are they part of a family that is known for eating plastics?

Graduate student Ana Sosa is studying the microbial communities that live on small pieces of plastic in the Chesapeake Bay to understand how they are affecting their environment.

Why does it make a difference? Plastic pollution is one of the biggest concerns of environmental science. Artificial polymers can be found in every single body of water and can persist there for decades and move with the water currents. Microorganisms living on these particles can have a significant impact on global nutrient cycles or could potentially be pathogens that affect aquatic organisms or even harm humans. Understanding the organisms that live on plastic could help us mitigate their negative effects, such as releasing excess nitrogen to the environment, and evaluate their potential to have a positive impact, such as using plastic eating bacteria to decrease pollution.

How did you get interested in environmental science? I went to school for Biotechnology Engineering, and for a while I thought I would focus on industrial processes or human health. Working in various industries, I quickly realized the importance of environmental science and decided I wanted to have a career that would allow me to do research and have an impact on environmental policy.

I came to UMCES in 2016 and started the Marine Estuarine and Environmental Science (MEES) program in the fall. Now I’m finishing up my classes and getting ready to begin my Ph.D. research.

Share an experience that stands out most about your time with UMCES. In 2017, I got the opportunity travel to Hong Kong for a conference and, in the same trip, spend some time in China. I learned some very important techniques in the South China Institute of Oceanology and got to meet people in my field from other countries.

What’s the most important thing people can do to help the environment? The most important thing people can do is get informed. By understanding what is really going on with the global climate and the impact that humans are having on it, people can come up with ideas on how to reduce their environmental footprint and mitigate or reverse the damage that has been done.

When do you anticipate earning your degree and what are your future plans? I am hoping to finish my Ph.D. degree sometime in 2021. It is my intention to continue to work in marine and environmental technology and focus my efforts on science communication. I believe it is important to change the way in which we communicate science and how to get people invested and involved. Technology will continue to evolve in the next decade, and scientists have the opportunity to not only adapt but take advantage of the tools it provides. It is my mission to develop new ways to interact with the general public.

Have you received any fellowships or grants? If so, what projects have you used them for? I received a Fulbright Scholarship that funded my master’s degree for two years. I then became a Sea Grant Fellow in August of 2018, which provides the stipends and tuition allowance for my studies as a Ph.D. student at IMET.