Alaska Pacific University receives millions of dollars from NASA for microplastics research

APU Chemistry and Environmental Sciences professor Dee Barker stands near a microscope in a university lab. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

To examine microplastics in Alaska waterways, APU Chemistry and Environmental Sciences professor Dee Barker has to first filter a water sample and examine what’s left over under a microscope, identifying small particles that might be plastic. Then she has to move it to a different, infrared microscope. 

“And then we have the whole instrument identify what this is,” Barker said. “And it says that this is a polyacrylamide. So it’s confirmed that this is indeed a plastic.”

Microplastics aren’t just in drinking water. They also show up in subsistence animals that navigate and drink from the water, like fish, caribou and moose. And while Anchorage waterways are full of microplastics, they’re increasingly showing up in rural waters, posing health risks like infertility, cancer and other organ troubles.

Not only are people drinking bits of plastic, but Barker said microplastics have properties that make it easy for toxins to stick to them. 

“These particles then transport them into the body,” Barker said. “And so there’s a higher potential impact of those toxins along with the plastics themselves.”

APU is set to receive roughly $5 million in grant funding from NASA to establish a microplastics research and education center. Part of that money will go towards getting a state-of-the-art Fourier-transform infrared spectrometer. It’s basically a tool that can identify the plastics in samples so researchers like Barker won’t have to transfer slides between two different machines.

It also means she’ll get clearer photos of tiny plastics the size of five microns, roughly the size of a red blood cell. Her current microscopes only show objects of roughly 100 microns. 

“This instrument is one of the top-tier instruments globally, that is able to identify particles of a size that will cross the human membranes,” Barker said.

Aside from new equipment, APU Provost Hilton Hallock said the funding will go towards internships and tuition stipends to help students from rural areas gain the skills to better monitor their home communities for microplastics.

“One of the goals was to develop more applied research that was community based and again, served Alaska’s communities in their needs,” Hallock said. “The other was to create opportunities, educational experiences for students to get involved.”

Barker said the funding also creates networking opportunities to work with NASA researchers who monitor the impact of microplastics on atmospheric systems. 

Barker said she’s hopeful that examining where microplastics are in various Alaska waterways won’t just point out where a problem exists. She hopes researchers can help find solutions in areas where the microplastics are most prevalent. 

“If we know where they’re going to be collected, so to speak, in the ecosystems, we might position something to help clear out the microplastics in those areas,” Barker said.

APU officials expect the funding to start coming in October. The NASA funding is part of the Minority University Research and Education Project Institutional Research Opportunity, a national initiative that helps universities that cater specific services to non-white students like APU, which is designated as an “Alaska Native-serving” college.

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