Sophia Stahl is passionate about the environment and protecting it. That’s why the Sanford, Florida, native is pursuing a degree in environmental studies at UCF.
It’s also why she’s been conducting hard core research that gets her waist deep in wetland muck. She’s hoping that treatment wetlands can help battle against the microplastics that are generated in your laundry and aren’t caught by wastewater treatment systems.
Much of today’s clothes are made of synthetic or semi-synthetic fabrics such as spandex or rayon, she says. Microscopic pieces of these fabrics break off when they tumble around in the washer and don’t dissolve in the water, which can cause problems for wildlife. There is not much research on the long-term effects of ingesting microplastics in humans.
Stahl will present her on-going research at the Student Scholar Symposium this week. The symposium is part of Student Research Week, which is free, open to the public and ongoing in the Student Union this week. Stahl shared what’s she’s learned and why we all need to pay attention.
Why are you pursuing your major or field of study?
I am actively pursuing a degree in environmental studies because I am passionate about improving mankind’s relationship with the environment. A goal of mine is to create better living conditions for humans while maintaining and promoting the health of the environment.
What does your research examine and how does it impacts the community?
A general definition for microplastics is manufactured plastic particles smaller than 5 mm that do not dissolve in water. A recent study of the Mississippi River found that approximately 97% of microplastics were clothing fibers. This makes our laundry wastewater the major carrier of microplastics into our water treatment plants, and research shows much of these fibers are not successfully removed during traditional wastewater treatment. Microplastics are a known environmental pollutant. Their small size makes them difficult to remove, they persist intact in the environment for a long time and can cause damage to living organisms that actively or passively ingest them. Treatment wetlands are an extremely effective system for breaking down environmental pollutants and hazardous substances like nitrogen, phosphorus, and pharmaceutical compounds, which also are not effectively removed during traditional wastewater treatment. However, the processing of fibers from wastewater using treatment wetlands has not yet been tested. We seek to understand if the natural processes of water filtration, photodegradation and microbial decomposition that occur in a treatment wetland could also aid in the break-down of microplastic fibers.
How did you develop the idea for this research project?
Many studies have dealt with microplastics breaking down and moving through our oceans. However, we have only begun to scratch the surface in regard to how microplastics circulate throughout terrestrial ecosystems. Pollution in terrestrial ecosystems tends to hit closer to home for the many of us. Learning how this new form of pollution is affecting our environment and looking for a way to help reduce the quantity has led to the creation of this research project. Since wetlands are known for breaking down a wide range of very complex compounds and treatment wetlands are commonly used for removing harsh substances from wastewater, there is reason to speculate that treatment wetlands might have an impact on the amount of microplastics fibers found in treatment plant waters.
What should people know about your research?
Our knowledge on the long-term effects plastic and microplastics have on both humans and nature has only recently started to be studied since plastic is such a new material. Wetlands have also started to take off in research only recently. There are many questions we still have regarding wetlands and many avenues left to explore. The limited knowledge we have on both topics creates a unique opening to explore a vast array of untapped knowledge. The ability to see how these two newly accepted parts of our society interact and impact one another is a new field of study that is waiting to be explored.
Why is research important to you?
Research is an important aspect of not only science and education, but as a basis for how we learn about the world. Questioning what we see around us has only increased our understanding. Research and understanding have also led humanity to create technological innovations that have helped benefit countless lives. Working towards a better future can only be done with knowledge and an attempting something, even if you get it wrong.
Why did you choose UCF?
I choose to attend UCF before I heard back from any of the other schools I applied for. I originally wanted to move out of Orlando and attend college someplace else. However, after touring the campus made me feel like I was at home. It felt safe, comfortable and like I already fit in. Everyone I met was so friendly and welcoming. Also, both of my parents attended UCF. Hearing about how the campus has grown and seeing all of the innovation happening at the university only added to my enthusiasm to choose UCF.
What is your career goal?
I hope to work in a field that deals with environmental conservation. Protecting and improving the quality of our environment is something I would love to help out with in whatever way I can.
What are some of your hobbies?
In my free time I enjoy woodworking and have made a variety of projects including cutting boards, bowls and live edge tables. Caring for my eight kinds of animals and 35 species of plants takes up a good portion of my free time as well. I also enjoy hiking trails all around Central Florida.