Marine Protected Area Ambassador studies impact of microplastics on coral health

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument coral and fish. (Image credit: Greg McFall/NOAA)

In support of dissertation research on the impact of microplastics on coral reef health and resilience, a PhD student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Graduate Program in Marine Biology was awarded a very competitive price NOAA Nancy Foster Fellowship.

Keiko Wilkins‘ Work will help establish a baseline of current conditions of coral microplastic uptake within the three NOAA National Marine Protected Areas in the Pacific Island Region: Papahāumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and the National Marine Sanctuary of American Sāmoa. Her work will also help better understand how different coral species retain plastics and determine potential ecological threats from microplastic-associated chemical contaminants.

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Keiko Wilkins

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to be a nursing fellow and NOAA Ambassador of the National Marine Sanctuary,” said Wilkins, who has joined the Richmond Lab Kewalo marine laboratory in which School of Marine and Earth Sciences and Technology (SOEST) in the fall of 2020. “Microplastic pollution is not a new concept to most people, but they are often surprised to learn that corals also eat microplastics. As plastic pollution continues to increase in our oceans, we need to better understand how corals are being affected. I look forward to sharing my findings and drawing more attention to microplastic pollution as it affects coral reefs and those who depend on them.”

As part of the grant program, Wilkins will also conduct an outreach project to support the local communities bordering the protected areas. Through a Richmond Lab grant from the Advanced Technological Education Program of the National Science Foundation Partnership for Advanced Marine and Environmental Science Training for Pacific Islanders, she will share her research and analytical methods with faculty and students at five regional community colleges in the Pacific Islands.

“Keiko is an outstanding PhD student who not only conducts extremely important and timely research of value Hawaii, the Pacific Islands and coral reefs worldwide, but as a member of a vastly underrepresented minority in the marine and environmental sciences, it makes an excellent example for others who are interested STEM Careers,” said her supervisor Bob Richmond, Research Professor and Director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory. “Indeed, she has been active in supporting diversity and inclusivity at the national level STEM areas and has proven to be an excellent mentor and inspiration for other students.”

For more information, see SOEST‘s site.

– By Marcie Grabowski

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