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Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument coral and fishes. (Photo credit: Greg McFall/NOAA)

To support dissertation research on the effects of microplastics on coral reef health and resilience, a doctoral student in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Marine Biology Graduate Program has been awarded a highly competitive NOAA Nancy Foster Scholarship.

Keiko Wilkins’ work will help to establish a baseline of current conditions of microplastic ingestion by corals within the three NOAA national marine protected areas within 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 to better understand how different species of corals retain plastics as well as determine potential ecological threats posed by microplastic-associated chemical contaminants.

woman smiling
Keiko Wilkins

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to be a Foster Scholar and NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Ambassador,” said Wilkins, who joined the Richmond Lab at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) in fall 2020. “Microplastic pollution is not a new term to most people, but they are often surprised to learn that corals eat microplastics too. As plastic pollution in our oceans continues to increase, we need a better understanding of how corals are being impacted. I am excited to share my findings and bring more attention to microplastic pollution as it affects coral reefs and those who depend on them.”

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

“Keiko is an outstanding graduate student who is not only performing extremely important and timely research of value to Hawaiʻi, the Pacific Islands, and coral reefs worldwide, but as a member of a highly under-represented minority group in the marine and environmental sciences, is an excellent role model for others who are interested in pursuing STEM careers,” said her doctoral research advisor Bob Richmond, a research professor and director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory. “Indeed, she has been actively engaged at the national level in supporting diversity and inclusivity in STEM fields and has proven to be an outstanding mentor and inspiration to other students.”

For more information, see SOEST’s website.

–By Marcie Grabowski

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