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Asif Rangoonwala, Trustee and Director of the P1 Marine Foundation with Alice McNeal.

Exeter student wins £1000 prize for pioneering plastics research project

A University of Exeter student has won a top £1,000 research award for her pioneering work into plankton and plastic.

Alice McNeal, who is currently studying Biological Sciences at University of Exeter, was presented with the award for her ground-breaking project ‘Plankton eating plastic: worth worrying about?’ in the P1 Marine Foundation National Student Awards at The Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, held on Wednesday.

Alice’s research is part of a three-year collaborative project on the availability and effects of microscopic plastic debris in the ocean being carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory, where she is spending this year on placement.

The awards were launched in 2012 by P1 Marine Foundation, a charity promoting the protection and conservation of the marine environment, to reward students in Higher Education who produce outstanding work. The ceremony gave student winners the opportunity to showcase their projects to an audience of academics, business leaders and NGOs.

As overall winner Alice will also see her work featured in the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) industry publication The Marine Professional, and a leading marine technical journal which reaches 16,000 members.

“I'm incredibly grateful to have received the award, not just because the funding will allow me to expand this research but also because it's great that an issue I care so much about is getting more attention,” said Alice, who is hoping to use the £1,000 to look at the risks and effects of chemical leaching either as part of her final year project or as a postgraduate.

“There are huge numbers of pieces of plastic less than 5mm in the ocean, which we call microplastics. Tiny animals called zooplankton, which include everything from crab and fish larvae to animals which spend their whole lives in a microscopic world, are at risk of ingesting these microplastics because they're the same size as their normal food,” she added.

“It's important to know the effects of plastic debris on zooplankton because they make up the base of the marine food web, and any detriment to their populations would have impacts on larger species, including commercially important ones. There's also the risk of plastics accumulating in larger animals that eat huge numbers of plankton, like fish and even whales.”

Entries to the competition were judged by a panel including Dr Laura Foster, Marine Conservation Society Pollution Programme Manager, Maya Plass, Marine Biologist and TV Presenter, Dr Trevor Dixon, Marine Pollution Specialist and government adviser, and Dr Kirsty Schneeberger, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Dr Laura Foster, Marine Conservation Society Pollution Programme Manager, and judging panel member said: “It was really great to see breadth and innovation from students working on helping to conserve our oceans. The variety of projects awarded reflects the quality of the submissions and it is wonderful to see the next generation of marine conservationists.”

“It would be great for people to take away from this that we all need to cut down on our plastic consumption, even little things like refilling a water bottle instead of buying a new one would have a huge impact if everyone did the same. I'd also encourage people to look out for microbeads in cosmetics - they turn up in everything from exfoliants to toothpaste, and one bottle can have thousands. The app ‘Beat the Microbead’ lets you search for products to see if they're safe,” added Alice.

Date: 26 February 2016

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