Next Generation: Nick Dawson on Microplastics and Microbes

February 28, 2022

Advisor(s): Dr. Mario Tamburri (UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory) & Dr. Greg Ruiz (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

What is the focus of your UMCES thesis research?
My advisors and I are still narrowing down the focus of my thesis research, but more generally my research interests focus on microplastic pollution and its interactions with microbes. These interactions are important because they may determine the ultimate fate of the plastics that have entered the marine environment.

“The first experience that led me into the world of microorganisms was a parasitic study on the Atlantic sharpnose shark,” said Nick Dawson.

How will your research make a difference?
Microbes are tiny living organisms that can be found all around us, however, they can’t be seen with the naked eye. For example bacteria, viruses, and algae are commonly found microbes. In estuaries and oceans, they typically colonize substrates like living animals, submerged structures, or vessel surfaces. Plastics may be a new surface for microbes to colonize, and when they do, they may encourage or change the breakdown of the plastics. I think it would be fascinating to see more of what interactions occur between microplastics and microbes, and possibly what effects they have on macro-organisms within ecosystems.

What influenced your career path in science?
Growing up I would move with my dad to various places due to his service in the Navy, and luckily every new area we stayed in was close to the ocean. That, coupled with reading Peter Benchely’s novels and following his path in promoting ocean conservation, bolstered my love for the ocean to the point where I knew I wanted to start my own journey. Ever since then, I have never looked back and continued to put myself in positions that will allow me to fulfill my overall goal.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
Dr. Tamburri, Dr. Ruiz, and I share mutual interests when it comes to plastic interaction with marine life. After a few Zoom calls and a couple of laughs, I knew that they were the best fit for me as I pursue my doctorate degree. Having the opportunity to be mentored by both of them and acquire the knowledge they have was too good to pass up. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with them.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
It’s not so much of an experience, but the atmosphere of UMCES is amazing. Everyone is rather nice and willing to help you. Everyone wants you to succeed.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
The best thing you can do to help the environment is to stay informed, and join beach or stream cleanups. Getting trash out of areas that are important to us is a good start to bettering the environment.

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
Back in December 2021, I gave a talk to students in the Henry Hall Fellowship Program at the National Baltimore Aquarium and the biggest advice I gave them was to follow their passion. Follow the experiences that have led you to this point. For me, I remember watching some ocean-dwelling creatures on the SYFY channel when I was a kid and thinking how cool that was and what else could be lurking in the depths. Visiting my first aquarium or finding a shark tooth on the beach are notable experiences I have had that help fuel my drive.

Finally, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, cause it's going to happen. Don’t let the idea of fear and failure overshadow your capability to achieve success within your chosen field. One quote I live by to this day is from the first African-American Master Diver Carl Brasher. He stated, “It's not a sin to get knocked down; it's a sin to stay down" and "I ain't going to let nobody steal my dream."

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award, or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important?
I have been fortunate to receive fellowships to support my work.  In this first year, I am being supported by a Solomons House Fellowship from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.  The MEES program will provide my second year of support and following that my advisors have funding that will support my studies.  It is important for people to know that it is typical for STEM students to be supported during their graduate degrees -so that their living expenses and tuition are covered.

When do you anticipate earning your degree?
Spring 2026

What are your future plans or aspirations?
I currently work for NOAA’s General Counsel of Environmental Review and Coordination (GC ERC), and am working on a couple of projects regarding Environmental Justice and the Coral Reef Conservation Program. I am learning a lot about policy and legislation from GC ERC, so I hope to one day combine the research skill set I am gaining at UMCES with my experience and knowledge on the policy side. I think this will make me a more well-rounded scientist.