Prestigious scholarship supports research on microplastics, reef health

In support of her dissertation research on the effects of microplastics on coral reef health and resilience, Keiko Wilkins, a doctoral student in the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Marine Biology Graduate Program, has been awarded a prestigious and highly competitive NOAA Nancy Foster Scholarship. Wilkins received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Biology from Miami University (Oxford, OH) and joined the Richmond Lab at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology in the Fall of 2020.

Through support from the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program, her 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.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to be a Foster Scholar and NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Ambassador,” said Wilkins when asked how she felt about receiving the scholarship. “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 which border the protected areas. Through a grant to the Richmond Lab from 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.

Wilkins was previously funded on a grant from the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command to study the effects on coral health and reproduction of tungsten related to testing programs in the Marshall Islands during which she honed her skills in coral reef ecotoxicology.  Her proposal to NOAA for the Nancy Foster Scholarship program was one of only seven selected for funding over the past two years, and will provide support for her dissertation research for the next four years. 

 “Keiko is an outstanding graduate student who is not only performing extremely important and timely research of value to Hawaii, 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,” stated her doctoral research advisor, Bob Richmond, 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.”

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