Abby Barrows

Hometown:  Stonington, ME USA

Current Job Title:  Marine Research Scientist

Work Location:  Stonington, Maine USA

Job Description:  During the field season I captain a lobster boat collecting water samples to look for microplastics (little pieces of plastic, less than 5 millimeters big) in the water.  I also use a data sonde to collect water quality data (pH, temperature, salinity, etc) which I use to look for trends or patterns in plastic distribution.  I trap the invasive green crab and use them for baiting the lobster traps as well as give them to local lobstermen, with the hope that using green crabs as bait will relieve some of the pressure on the bait fish species.  I am part of the marine  mammal stranding response team which means I go to beaches where an animal has been reported and either help get it to a rehabilitation center or collect it for a necropsy to find out how it died.

I also receive water samples for my microplastics research from around the world.  Samples have come many places, recently I used my lab to process samples from the Antarctic Peninsula, Iceland and west Africa.  I look for small pieces of plastic in the water and have found that microplastics are in all the major oceans and seas!

Company, Academic Institution, Government Agency or Non-profit affiliation: I contract for both the Marine Environmental Research Institute and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

Highest Degree Level Achieved: and Area of Study: Bachelor of Science, Zoology- University of Tasmania, Australia

What do you love most about your career?

I love being out on the ocean!  Driving the boat and seeing birds, seals and porpoises leaves a smile on my face even after a long hard day of conducting research.  Connecting with people all over the world that care for the ocean and training them to collect water samples is very satisfying.  Each time a box arrives in the mail it is like a christmas surprise-where is the sample from and what is it going to reveal to me?!

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine science or STEM related field?

I grew up on a small island so the ocean was always a very big part of my life.  I was interested in science from a young age because of the opportunity to be outside.  While working on a seahorse research project in Papua New Guinea I got a real taste of field work, running boats, diving, exploring new waters, collecting data underwater...  From then on I knew that the ocean would feature in anything I pursued.  

Describe one of the most exciting moments you’ve experienced in your work.

I recently designed a research project to look for microplastic in some of the most common commercial species here in Maine.  I collected oysters, mussels, clams, mackerel and lobster.  After a month of experimenting in the lab the first mussel samples were ready to look at for plastics.  Getting the microscope adjusted and bringing the first pieces of plastic into focus was a thrilling experience!

Describe the biggest challenge (or challenges) that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

I live a very rural area, with a lot of natural beauty and islands.  It was very difficult to find a job where I could follow my passion for the ocean and feel like I was making a positive contribution to the scientific world.  I did not want to move to a city where there are often more job options.  I decided to create become an independent scientist and design projects to do with local organizations. Through perseverance and passion I have been able to create my own research projects and follow my interest in marine science.

Who is your most influential mentor and how did they help you get to where you are today.

From a young age Jane Goodall really helped me realize that a woman can pursue field sciences, making a real difference and contribution to the scientific world.

How do you feel you are making a positive difference in the world?  

The microplastics research is engaging many people through citizen science.  Their participation in my research helps start a conversation about plastic use and plastic pollution.  I think that it is an overwhelmingly huge international problem but a very important first step is getting people to engage and feel like their contribution will contribute to finding a solution. Through this project I hope that plastic use will be reduced locally and globally.