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Biology major on mission to save the planet — one microplastic at a time

Ana Chew picks up trash on a beach in Hawaii.

Ana Chew was in paradise. Palm trees swayed in the breeze. Crystal clear water lapped in waves at her feet. Mountains towered in the distance. Then she saw it: a break in the perfection.

Sticking out in the sand was half a plastic lawn chair. It wasn’t alone. There was fishing gear, bottle caps, fragments of children’s toys, pieces of a laundry basket — all washed up on the Hawaiian beach where Ana was spending her summer.

She’d joined a community clean-up and was spending the day removing trash from the beach. But by the next day, new plastic chairs, toys, and trash had washed ashore and taken its place. It was disheartening, but not surprising.

Plastic, not paradise, is what brought Ana to Hawaii in the first place as an intern for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA), studying microplastics and their effects on fish and humans.

A dream internship

Ana has known since third grade that she wanted to study marine biology. Back then, she admits she may have just thought that meant she’d be a dolphin trainer. But now, in her senior year studying Biology at York College of Pennsylvania, she has loftier ambitions. “I ultimately want to work at NOAA,” she says.

When she found out she was accepted as only one of three interns nationwide for the government agency, she was beyond excited. She re-read the acceptance email four times before racing down her apartment stairs and screaming the news to her roommates and calling her mom.

For Ana, who has banned straws in her house and insists on reusable bags and water bottles, the idea of spending her summer studying microplastics in a lab was a dream come true. “You get to be in a professional lab,” she says. “You get to be with real doctors who do this for a living and have basically dedicated their whole career to plastic. It’s just so cool to me.”

Plastics in the food chain

Most of Ana’s day was spent in a lab on Ford Island in Naval Brig Pearl Harbor sorting historical samples taken in 1998. She’d divide samples into petri dishes, then sort those samples into categories of fish, microplastics, and everything else. Then, she’d image and analyze the results.

“Little fish eat the plastic, then big fish eat the little fish, then we eat the big fish,” she says. “So ultimately, how much plastic are we eating?”

Ana found the work very interesting, and it ties into independent research she’s already doing at York College. She was also able to do a lot of networking, meeting people who do what she hopes to one day do for a living. “They said please come back, please stay in touch, so that’s awesome,” she says. 

It also made her more certain than ever that marine biology is definitely where she belongs.

Branching out

Ana’s internship wasn’t just a professional adventure; it was a personal one, too. She went surfing —it was much harder than she expected – and gained newfound independence.

Being so far away from her family and having a six-hour time difference meant she was really doing everything on her own for the first time, and that felt surprisingly great. “My mom is saying I’m more stubborn now,” she laughs, “but I think I’m just standing up for myself and speaking up when I need to.”

She’s taking those independence and research skills back to York College for her senior year. She’s hoping to publish her independent research next spring. It’s just one more step on the way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a marine biologist and saving the planet — one microplastic at a time.