image title

Tiny little pieces of plastic are getting into everything

September 18, 2019

Beth Polidoro and her ASU SWAT lab set out to make the oceans and the seafood we eat safe from microplastics and other pollutants

Marine biologist Beth Polidoro did not always aspire to be a scientist. She first wanted to be a reporter, covering wars and human rights abuses across the globe. But a short stint working at a newspaper covering community events and writing movie reviews left her uninspired. She always loved spending time outdoors and was inspired to apply for a job at an environmental organization, which began her foray into science.

At her new job, Polidoro wrote a grant to teach kids how to use school gardens as part of their science classes. They got the grant, and she taught third-graders how to plant seeds.

Beth Polidoro in the lab

Beth Polidoro, leader of the Salt Water Assessment Team lab and associate professor of environmental chemistry and aquatic conservation at ASU. For more, visit Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Today, Polidoro reports on marine biology as leader of ASU’s Salt Water Assessment Team lab and associate professor of environmental chemistry and aquatic conservation in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in Arizona State University's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. As a scientist, she looks at pollution in the marine environment: where it comes from, where it ends up, and what the impact of chemicals are on both marine species and people who eat seafood. And the reporter in her really enjoys translating those findings in a way people can understand.

“I don’t really like to just go up to someone and say, ‘That piece of tuna that you’re eating has 25 parts per million arsenic and mercury in it,’ because people will just glaze over and not really know what it means,” she said. “But telling someone that eating a certain type of fish twice a week over their lifetime may put them at a 25% heightened risk of cancer, for example, is something they can understand and use to make better choices about what to feed their families.”

Seafood scientist

Polidoro doesn’t just translate what she finds in the field and the lab to health outcomes. She also uses it to help guide conservation and environmental policies. Although she looks at freshwater fisheries in Arizona, sampling fish that people are catching and looking for contaminants, she does most of her work overseas in developing countries — where the need is greatest.

“Here in the U.S. and in Europe, we’re really blessed,” Polidoro said. “We have lots of data, we have lots of scientists, we have lots of equipment and we have lots of capacity for looking at pollution and impacts. We have a lot of good regulations, too, monitoring and mitigating those pollutants from impacting the environment. Step outside those countries and you don’t see the same things at all. There’s very little regulation, practically no monitoring, and very little capacity to do those things.”

Seafood specimens from the Gulf of Oman

Seafood specimens saved from the Gulf of Oman in the Middle East. Photo by Beth Polidoro

So Polidoro brings capacity to these places, not just sampling and analyzing contaminants but also helping them determine what the biggest risks to ecosystems and human health are, which helps them mitigate those risks or work to reduce impacts.

Last year, while on sabbatical, Polidoro received a Fulbright grant to research microplastics in seafood in the Philippines and took her entire family with her. Her three children — ages 5, 6 and 8 — went to international school. Her husband, a wildlife biologist working as a director of conservation science at the Phoenix Zoo, conducted research of his own while she completed her research and conducted trainings on marine biodiversity risk assessment methodology.

The Philippines is the most biodiverse country in the world in terms of marine species with 4,000. By comparison, the Eastern Tropical Pacific from California to Chile has about 1,000 species of fish. There are 60 species of corals, whereas the Philippines has 700. But the Philippines is also one of the world’s top producers of plastic pollution as well as other contaminants.

“You walk down the street in the Philippines, and you see garbage everywhere. There are health impacts. People are concerned,” Polidoro said. “They want to know what fish are more contaminated than others, and if I am eating fish that’s high in contaminants, what is the dose I should be eating. They’re also worried about environmental health, and the impacts to marine species and ecosystems.”

Fish swim in the Dauin National Marine Sanctuary in the Philippines

The Philippines is a top producer of plastic pollution, threatening 4,000 marine species in some of world’s most biodiverse waters, including Dauin National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Beth Polidoro

Polidoro analyzed and prioritized the impact of contaminants on marine species and habitats, developed assessment methodology for the Philippines’ equivalent of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and conducted trainings and workshops to jump-start and help maintain the initiative.

She also worked with the American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency, the territory’s equivalent of the U.S. EPA, on legislation to ban Styrofoam products and to develop economical and environment-friendly alternatives.

“That’s huge because in American Samoa, Styrofoam is king,” Polidoro said. “Everyone has stacks of takeout containers in their homes to send guests who come to their houses with food to take home when they leave, so Styrofoam is part of the culture.”

Passing it on to students

Polidoro’s work doesn’t just benefit the communities with which she works. She also brings student researchers along, allowing them the opportunity to study the impact of plastic pollution on marine species and on human health in remote locations.

“She has an incredible track record with getting funding for her research, which she has translated into just amazing, unbelievable opportunities for the students who work with her,” said Lara Ferry, associate dean of research and strategic initiatives for the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. “She’s always thinking about how to leverage that success to pass it on to students and make sure students are getting new experiences. They’re going to be the next generation of scientists and … all of that makes them really well-rounded and well-equipped scientists.”

Erin Murphy, ’23 PhD in biology and society, spent two weeks in the Philippines with Polidoro and collected sediment and shellfish at Tanay (a town east of Manila) and seafood from the local market alongside local students for later analysis at Polidoro’s West campus lab.

“All of Beth’s work is really collaborative with professors who are already in the area,” she said. “She’s very good at working in different communities and listening to the voice of locals and understanding what they want and what they need in their communities.” And, Murphy says, local residents appreciate the value of learning about the health risks of microplastics.

Snorkelers in the ocean off Cuba

Beth Polidoro’s Salt Water Assessment Team works the waters of the Caribbean Sea off Cuba. Photo by Beth Polidoro

While Polidoro’s work is transforming customs in the Philippines, American Samoa and elsewhere, she has changed some of her own habits. She doesn’t drink from plastic bottles or heat plastic in the microwave, doesn’t wear makeup and is careful about what’s in the sunscreen she uses. Still, she remains hopeful.

“I truly believe that the amount of awareness and research and collaboration that has happened over the past five years in terms of trying to better understand and better mitigate pollution is enormous,” she said. “We’ve seen an explosion of research on how much plastic and other pollutants are getting into the environment, where that’s occurring, how they’re moving, how they’re degrading, where they’re ending up. And all sorts of groups are getting involved, not just research organizations, but governments, nonprofits, citizen groups.”

And she’s noticed people are more likely to bring their own bags to the grocery stores or use metal water bottles instead of plastic.

“I think people say, ‘Oh, pollution, I don’t care about that. Oh, the environment, I don’t care about that.’ You don’t want clean air to breathe? You don’t want clean water to drink?” Polidoro said. “Because if you don’t, 30 years down the road, you might not feel so good. There’s a connection between conservation and the environment and your own health and your ultimate happiness.”

Written by Yael Grauer, a graduate student at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication who has written for national publications including Wired and Slate. This story originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Top photo by NOAA Marine Debris Program

image title

Survival, resilience and rediscovery

September 18, 2019

Naruro Hassan’s extraordinary journey led her from war-torn Somalia to ASU

Naruro Hassan took a seat among 10 other undergraduate research fellows in John Carlson’s “Inquiry into Religion and Conflict” course one sweltering morning in August 2017, a student like all others who qualified for the program, but also a student unlike any other in class. Carlson, interim director of Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, recalls Hassan’s colorful hijab, bright red lipstick and Converse sneakers peeking out from the rim of her floor-length skirt. Maria Dooling, one of the fellows, remembers her booming voice, commanding attention.

“When she speaks, everyone really listens,” said Dooling, who is graduating in December with degrees in biochemistry and political science. “It’s like she was born to lead.”

Hassan (pictured above, left) is a refugee with an extraordinary story of survival, resilience and rediscovery that began in war-torn Somalia and, after long, trying chapters in a remote refugee camp in Kenya, is unfolding at ASU, where her academic pursuits are as ambitious as the goal she has set for herself. She is majoring in history, minoring in philosophy and African studies, and has pursued certificates in religion and conflict and in political thought and leadership, with eyes on becoming a human rights lawyer. As a student researcher, she assisted Carlson with his justice book project and is working with ASU Professor Keon McGuire on his research project, “The Lived Experiences of Black Muslim Students Attending Predominantly White Institutions.” 

Drawing from her refugee experiences, Hassan also works with the Humanitarian African Relief Organization, one of the largest groups aiding refugees and displaced people in Africa.

“You dream about who you want to be, what you want to do, but you don’t know if any of it is possible,” she said about life at the refugee camp in Kenya. “You wonder, ‘Is this opportunity ever going to be available to me? Am I ever going to leave this place?’

“There were a lot of other kids at camp who were smarter than me, who wanted to change the world for the better, but who didn’t have this opportunity. I have this opportunity. Now I have to honor my blessings. I want to be the voice for people who are marginalized, for the people who are left behind.”

Students work at tables in a classroom

Naruro Hassan (right) and Maria Dooling take notes during their religion and conflict class at ASU. “When she speaks, everyone really listens,” Dooling says of Hassan. “It’s like she was born to lead.” Photo by Houseblend

Hassan was 16 when she arrived in Phoenix on June 11, 2014, 11 years after she was separated from her parents and older sister and brother during their desperate escape from the Somali capital of Mogadishu. She had no idea where they were or even if they were alive. “I just kept hoping that I would see them someday,” she said.

The Somali Civil War erupted when Mohammed Siad Barre, a dictator who had ruled the Somali Democratic Republic for 22 years, was forced to flee in 1991 after rival militia groups took control of Mogadishu and unleashed a deadly and destructive struggle for power. A 2017 report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees indicates that more than 2 million people have been displaced by the bloody conflict, including about 800,000 living as refugees in Kenya, Yemen and Ethiopia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 47,000 Somalis came to the U.S. as refugees between 2010 and 2016. Hassan, now 21, is one of them. Her family witnessed the horrors befalling their neighbors and sensed the violence creeping closer to them. That, Hassan says, is why they escaped. In the chaos, she became disconnected from her family. She was 5 and ended up accompanying friends on the arduous journey to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in the impoverished northwest corner of Kenya, near the country’s borders with Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia. She spent the next 10 years there.

Kakuma was established in 1992 to house the young refugees known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” By the time Hassan arrived, it was home to more than 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. She says the camp represented “immense human suffering ... always dusty, always hot.” There were no paved roads, no hospitals and no buildings other than houses made of mud, and hours-long waits for food that often wasn’t enough for everyone.

What Hassan had was a sense of gratitude for being alive. She cobbled together a family of sorts from the friends she had accompanied to Kakuma and the children she met there, savoring little things like playing soccer with friends and eating together. At school, she learned English and Swahili, Kenya’s lingua franca, and also math and science, even though there were no books. She discovered her passion and skill for debate at Kakuma, while discussing with other young refugees the messy politics of their home countries.

She longed for a bigger platform to learn and share her experiences as a refugee, even though she knew that the odds of leaving the camp were stacked against her. But the experience galvanized her.

“I was somebody who didn’t have a country,” Hassan said, “and I thought, ‘I’m not going to be dehumanized again. I have to fight back.’”

Then she caught the luckiest of breaks.

A mother and daughter hold hands and smile at each other

Naruro Hassan (right), greets her mother, Zahara Omar. They were reunited in 2014, 11 years after violence in Somalia separated the family. Photos by Houseblend

Her mother, Zahara Omar, who had by then been resettled in Phoenix and become a U.S. citizen, never stopped searching for Naruro. She finally found her youngest child after traveling to Kenya and sponsored her to come to Arizona. Naruro joined her sister, Nafiso, a nurse, and her brother, Mohamed, who is studying computer engineering at ASU, in the apartment the family shares in northeast Phoenix.

Hassan enrolled at Camelback High School as a junior and found herself educating classmates who seemed to know little about where she had come from — “Is Africa a country?” one of them asked — while learning new things from new people she met, including one of her best friends, who was born in Mexico. She also became aware that her skin color and religion not only set her apart, but also made her a target.

“In the U.S., I have so many identities in me that are marginalized,” Hassan said. “Being black is marginalized here. Being Muslim is marginalized. Being a woman, a refugee. I’m someone that shouldn’t be here, who doesn’t belong.”

RELATED: Education for Humanity takes leadership role in refugee education

Hassan credits her opportunities at ASU with broadening her perspectives and shaping her activism. 

“She’s someone who has lived a very unique set of experiences and can articulate in very concrete terms that these are not an abstraction, that this is what it means to live in a war-ravaged country, this is what it means to be separated from your family because whole populations have been forced out of your country and into refugee camps,” Carlson said.

Hassan is a co-founder and vice president of the Somali Student Association at ASU and the outreach director for Voices of Empathy, a student-led group that she helped start to advocate for the rights of immigrants, women and workers. Through a series of speaking engagements and internships — she has taught English and computer classes to refugees, organized voter registration drives and spoken at Ignite, a TED-style event on campus — Hassan has crystalized her role as an agent of change.

“I’m going to fight for refugees and I’m also going to fight for black people, for Native Americans, for Mexicans, Latinos,” she said. “Because we’re all interconnected. Our freedom, our justice, it’s all interconnected. I can’t be selfish. We have to look out for each other.”

Written by Fernanda Santos, who joined ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication after 12 years at The New York Times. This story originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Top photo: Naruro Hassan (left) with her sister, Nafiso (right), and their friend, Hafsa Omar, at Papago Park in Tempe. Photo by Houseblend