Meet Sam Athey, an environmental chemist studying microfiber pollution!

What is your scientific background?

I studied marine biology and chemistry during my undergraduate degree at UNC-Wilmington in Wilmington, North Carolina. There I conducted an undergraduate honors research project on microplastic ingestion in marine turtles. I then completed a masters in marine science at UNCW in 2018. My thesis research was on the effects of microplastic ingestion and trophic transfer in estuarine species. Currently, I’m pursuing a PhD in earth sciences (focus in environmental chemistry) at the University of Toronto, where I’m researching microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

A presentation on a project I was involved in at UNCW, looking at the impacts of microplastics on important NC fishery species. – Sam Athey

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to pursue a career in science?

Nature was my biggest role model growing up. Growing up in southwest Florida, I spent almost everyday outside exploring the pine-lands and coastal habitats of the South. I was fascinated by the nature of local ecosystems and always asking questions and wanting to learn more about the abiotic processes that shaped them and the wildlife that lived there. In elementary school that I learned this process that I loved of discovery and learning was science and thus my goal of being a career scientist was born! Since entering the microplastics field, I’ve meant many women researchers/professors/students that I look up to and am inspired by every day. Some of my biggest role models include oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle and plastic pollution researcher and communicator, Bonnie Monteleone.

How did you choose your field of study?

The UNC-Wilmington Plastic Ocean Project education team giving a school assembly presentation on the impacts of plastic pollution on marine life!
The UNC-Wilmington Plastic Ocean Project education team giving a school assembly presentation on the impacts of plastic pollution on marine life – Sam Athey.

Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I grew more interested in human impacts on the ocean and marine conservation. After finishing high school, I moved to coastal North Carolina to further my passion for marine conservation and interest in science. There, I learned about plastic pollution and it became the focus of my undergraduate research. As I learned through my research, I became passionate about sharing the knowledge. I began to volunteer with the Plastic Ocean Project (POP) and led their first college chapter, UNCW POP. Since then, I’ve continued in this field conducting research on the sources, sinks and solutions of microplastic pollution for my MSc and PhD research.

What is a typical day like for you?

On any given day of the week, you may find me in the lab working on microplastic samples or conducting laundry (one source of microplastic pollution) experiments using our lab’s washing machine. I also spend a lot of time out of the lab, communicating the work that I’m conducting and my findings to the public at school events, community presentations, cleanups or more. I also do a lot of online science communication (scicomm) through my blog, the Microfiber Pollution Project, or my Twitter page (@sustainablesam). In my free time, I can normally be found painting on my balcony or reading in the park.

At a local wastewater treatment facility sampling for microplastics that come from our laundry! – Sam Athey
I’m also a part of the U of T Trash Team, a dedicated group of students working to raise awareness on plastic pollution in Toronto. Here we are after a cleanup of the Don River! – U of T Trash Team

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? 

I have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Since I was young, I’ve recognized that I learn and think a bit differently than others. I was outspoken, extremely talkative, hyperactive and at times annoying to my classmates through school. In college, my grades were suffering and I found myself not being able to sit through an hour lecture without missing big chunks of information. After seeing a doctor about it and being diagnosed with ADHD, I was able to better recognize, understand and address the disruptive symptoms of this condition. Though ADHD can be frustrating, I see it as also the source of some of my greatest strengths, like my high-energy, passion and ability to think outside the box. I think it’s important for young students with ADHD who have an interest in science to know this condition won’t hold you back, if anything it can help you excel!

How does your family regard your career choice?

I’m lucky to have a family that has supported my passion for science and learning throughout my life. My granddad is a retired librarian and he really inspired my love of learning and reading. Some of my earliest memories involved my granddad sharing stories with my siblings and I, going to their local bookshop and talking about books that we were reading. Without that passion for reading and learning, I may not be a scientist today!

Me with my grandparents at the ocean, near where I grew up. My grandparents are my biggest supporters and a big inspiration to me! – Sam Athey










To learn more about Sam’s work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter!