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Microplastics Project Presented Internationally

Dr Seethal Sivarajan, Environmental Management Tutor from Southern Institute of Technology | Te Pūkenga, with the support of microplastics research hub members, Dr Christine Liang, Karen Luttrell and Rani Fernandez, recently presented ongoing microplastics research on an international stage.

More than 750 people attended the Freshwater Sciences 2023 Conference, held 3rd – 7th June in Brisbane, Australia. It was the first time the Society for Freshwater Science has held the annual event outside of North America, presenting new opportunities to create northern - southern hemisphere collaborations in the joint meeting of three societies: the Society for Freshwater Science and the Australian and New Zealand Freshwater Science societies.

Dr Sivarajan, who has a PhD in Environmental Science, is part of a research hub with SIT colleagues Mrs Fernandez and Ms Luttrell who’ve continued with the SIT-instigated citizen science microplastics project, Micro-Investigators, since Programme Manager, Dr Liang’s departure to Germany last year. In her presentation, Dr Sivarajan gave a general overview of the citizen science microplastics project which engages primary school children as the budding scientists who collect freshwater samples, providing the raw data for measurement of microplastics content.

Dr Sivarajan said the main purpose of the presentation was to emphasise how successful the project has been. “Usually citizen science projects involve adults, the highlight of the project is we’re working with primary school children,” she explained.

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The presentation also included another point of difference the scientific project has - the addition of cultural aspects, embracing Māori values such as kaitiakitanga | stewardship and acknowledging tangata whenua | people of the land. “There is a higher level of interaction with Māori students through highlighting these values,” Dr Sivarajan said. The student-led philosophy is helped through a tuakana-teina | older – younger framework, which pairs older students with younger students, encouraging a two-way sharing of knowledge and experience.

Dr Sivarajan received good feedback and enquiries after speaking. The audience, mainly made up of Australians and Canadians, “liked that it is very simple to collect samples,” and they were intrigued that primary school children were doing the collecting. They were also interested in accessing the data, which is available to anyone on the Micro-Investigators website https://microinvestigators.nz/charts/ .

The opportunity to disseminate and share the information was important as it helps with visibility and potential uptake, stated Dr Sivarajan. There was interest shown from an Australian school who had a similar project; they were looking at adopting some of SIT’s Micro-Investigators’ methods. “The model is good, it works, it is able to be rolled out anywhere,” she added.

Dr Sivarajan was supported by Te Pūkenga to attend the conference and achieved two personal milestones there; it was her first international conference and her first time speaking at a conference, giving her valuable experience. “It increases your confidence,” she said.

Other Microplastics project achievements so far this year, include a popular workshop/stall at the New Zealand International Science Festival (July 4th) in Dunedin, and appearing at the Water Quality Day, run by student volunteers, at the ILT Stadium in March. The project was also presented by Mrs Fernandez at The Aotearoa New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit at the University of Waikato in February.

Meanwhile, plans for the project’s expansion continues and next steps include securing the next round of funding (early 2024) for schools further afield. Funding goes towards making the kits which are distributed to participating schools for freshwater sample collection. “We’re planning to continue moving outside Southland and work with schools in five more regions,” said Dr Sivarajan. There is already a kit at the other end of the country, at an environmental organisation in Whangarei. “The kits work well, are fit for purpose,” and are an essential component to the success of the project, she added. Dr Liang, who initiated and established the project two years ago, is still active in the research and manages the website content.

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