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Swimming in plastic | ASU KEDtalk

There’s something in the water — plastic. An unfathomable amount of plastic has made its way into our oceans, but Charlie Rolsky believes we can make small changes in our lives to turn the tide of plastic pollution for a cleaner world and healthier ecosystems.

Hi, I’m Charlie, and I’m a PhD student at Arizona State University  — so naturally, I study the ocean. Which is actually kind of impossible. It’s huge, we have zero control over it, and we are completely out of our element while in it. We can pack up and load out on a boat to collect samples but in the blink of an eye, bad weather or rough ocean conditions can completely derail any plans for fieldwork. So many unknowns remain.

What we do know is that microplastics have invaded virtually every ocean ecosystem, from top to bottom, beach to beach, from the smallest organism to the largest. Among the largest are marine mammals, whose poop I’ve studied, and what I’ve found is extremely troubling. Many of their systems are inundated with microplastics and contaminants. And it’s not because they’re eating these plastics themselves. They’re eating the fish, which are eating the smaller organisms that are ingesting plastic. And these are the same fish you and I are eating.

Now it’s not just the plastics themselves that are a threat. As they break down, their surface area increases, allowing for contaminants to attach at high concentrations. This is in addition to the chemicals that are already present in the plastics themselves. 

Now, I get it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of this problem. But there are things that you can do as a consumer which can help limit the flow of plastics into the ocean.

Personally, I’ve been much more aware about what I’m flushing down the drain. Polyester, for example, is a unique plastic fiber that’s often shed in the wash and it disintegrates very easily. I’ve found these same fibers in the stomachs of crabs and the feces of seabirds which have had no contact with human beings. I’m not saying to throw out your entire closet, but next time you’re buying a new shirt, maybe opt for the cotton one, not the poly blend.

As scientists, we have a unique but limited perspective into the world of plastic pollution. So it;s incredibly important that we reach out to as many people as possible.

So let me turn it back to you: have you seen plastic waste in your community? Any ideas for how to reduce it? Tell me about it! I’ve spoken with people all over the world who’ve sent me plastic pollution samples. From Seychelles to South Africa, Australia. And some of these people have even started their own beach cleanup groups.

What I’ve learned from interactions like these is beyond important. Under the microscope can answer some questions, but many remain. So that’s where you come in. Let’s see what we can accomplish together. Our oceans are the food we eat, the air we breathe, and places we associate with happiness. As long as those facts remain, so should our fight to protect them.

ASU KEDtalks: The Podcast with Charlie Rolsky

Pete Zrioka: Welcome to ASU KEDtalks, the podcast. I’m your host, Pete Zrioka, and I’m here today with Charlie Rolsky, a PhD student who studies microplastic pollution in the ocean and its impact on marine life. Hi Charlie!

Charlie Rolsky: How’s it going, beard brother?

Zrioka: Oh Hey. Yeah. Beard brother! I like that. For listeners at home, we both have like large, formidable beards. It looks like a lumberjack cast in here. Thanks so much for being here with me today, Charlie.

Rolsky: Thanks for having me.

Zrioka: Awesome. So microplastic pollution, tell me a little about that. How much is in the ocean and how did it all end up there?

Rolsky: We have no clue. That’s the scary part of it is that we, we have no idea how much is in there. We just know that we kind of take these exploratory missions to places and we’ll say, well I wonder if there’s plastics here? And there are. And then I wonder if there’s plastics at the bottom of the ocean? And there are. And I wonder if this plastics in bird poop that, you know, these birds on an island that have no contact with humans? And there are. So it’s a, I have yet to find an ecosystem where there really aren’t microplastics and uh, you know, in terms of how they got there, that’s kinda the scary part because these, these bigger plastics break down over years and years and years and you know, because the salt in the ocean, because of the physicality of the ocean and some of these microplastic particles are probably at least 50, 60, 70 years old because it takes so long for this really resilient material to break down.

Zrioka: So basically around the time we started using plastics in a huge commercial way, they started ending up in the ocean ecosystem.

Rolsky: Exactly. It’s kinda like how, you know, we utilize DDT back in the day and then, you know, there was a ban on DDT, but then we still find it actively in certain locations and that’s going to be, that’s going to be plastic. Even if you ban all plastic, which I don’t think you should do, but if you ban all plastic right now, we would still find plastic for years and years and years to come. It’s, it’s what’s so good at making it, you know, a commercial product is also the reason why it’s sticking around for so long.

Zrioka: Cause it’s durable…

Rolsky: …durable…

Zrioka: …has a variety of uses…

Rolsky: …cheap. Something’s that inexpensive. It’s used by virtually all these really, you know, developed countries. And yeah, it’s, it’s a, it’s a vicious cycle.

Zrioka: So, uh, one thing you mentioned in your, in your KEDtalk is something you actually make light of is that you’re an ocean researcher in the middle of Arizona. So tell me a little about that. Like how’d you find your way to ASU and then how much does actually being located here impact your work on th e ocean, which is, you know, pretty far away.

Rolsky: So my family lives here and I liked, you know, the area well enough. I went here as an undergrad and I got a really cool teaching job that I wanted to carry over to a grad degree and it allowed me to get funded, which was a really nice setup. Okay. But I never lost my love for the ocean. And a lot of people tried to kind of place me in labs that revolved around insects or you know, reptiles, which I love, reptiles and insects. Those are both awesome. But that’s not what I really wanted to do. So I connected with my advisor, Ralph Halden and he had a very big imagination, kind of like I did and we kind of came to the mutual decision of studying plastic pollution. And you know, we created a method to be able to kind of fill a void in the plastic pollution world. And that was identifying really small particles and microplastics. So we created a method and we, it worked and then we started getting interest from all these groups kind of around the world that had, you know, plastic pollution around them, but no way of really understanding it. So then, you know, that filled our void, we didn’t have samples, they didn’t have analysis. So we’d connect and now we’re this hub for studying microplastic pollution, which is really cool. And you know, it’s great. It just shows that you don’t have to study something that’s right next to you. You can still have an affinity for a location and still be able to study it even though you’re not right next to it, which is a really nice thing to pass on to students, you know, that I mentor and teach. It’s really cool.

Zrioka: Yeah, absolutely. I mean you wouldn’t think that an ocean researcher would end up here, nor could your work have such like huge impact that it has so far. Um, you, you spoke about a method and samples. Um, first can you tell me about the method you guys use to study microplastics and second, what are the samples you study?

Rolsky: Sure. So this’ll probably be the coolest, the coolest thing I ever say. And I use a laser and so the laser basically shines into any type of material and it, and it shoots back a signal and that signal is really subjective to that material. So it’s going to be almost like a fingerprint and, and we can use that. You know, there’s, there’s relatively, you know, around seven types of plastic is more than that. But generally there’s about seven. Yeah, big groups, they keep making more, but I can usually, you know, I can create a database of all those signals and be able to compare any unknown plastic to those and identify it. So, you know, we get a variety of samples and I think probably the most interesting one would be, you know, Marine mammal poop, which is kind of a good conversation starter depending on the location and the appetite of the person. But a lot of marine mammals are ingesting fish, which have ingested microplastics. And so it kind of works its way up the food chain and ends up with us. And so that’s kind of where I am right now. I’m actually going through seabird poop and finding microfibers and analyzing them to sort of understand what type of material it is and maybe if it’s degrading and all that fun stuff.

Zrioka: So marine mammals that would include large, like whales and stuff.

Rolsky: Oh yeah. The biggest animal, the biggest animal in the world. Yeah, sure.

Zrioka: Wow. Okay. So I don’t know what whale poop looks like. Um, furthermore, I wouldn’t know how to find it so, well, first gross.

Rolsky: Yup.

Zrioka: But secondly, um, what have you learned from studying it and, uh, how do you go about finding those samples and collecting them?

Rolsky: So whale poop is far superior to human poop because it just smells like fish.

Zrioka: That’s a weird, weird sentence.

Rolsky: We’ve got a whole, yeah, we are, our stuff is, is you know, straight up nasty, but theirs is just kind of like bad fish.

Zrioka: It just smells briney?

Rolsky: Yeah, it’s just weird fishy smell. It’s not bad at all. When you’re in the area, you kind of sniff the air and you think there’s a dead fish. So kinda like that. But you have to get really creative because marine mammals only surface every once in a while to breathe. Right. So, uh, there was a group in University of Washington that a rescue dog to smell for a Marine mammal poop, specifically killer whales at the time. And uh, this dog was incredible. His name was Tucker and he could smell poop from almost, I think it was like a mile away. And he was, he was kind of a black lab, we’d said, because he would look like one and act like one, then he fall in the water and freak out. So kind of a terrible black lab at the same time. But yeah, so he, he was the legend. He’s retired now. He’s living his best life. And uh, but he helped us or you know, he helped create a method where people could utilize rescue dogs to smell marine mammal poop and collect it and analyze it.

Zrioka: So Tucker would just hang out and like the bow of the ship would bark in a certain direction and you guys would go for it?

Rolsky: He would kinda look around and look at the birds and look at the water and uh, you know, just hang out. And then once he cued on, once he smelled something, he’d get really excited and shake his butt super hard. And then in the direction where he’d shake his butt is where the handler would kind of look and she’d have to read his body language and then relay that to the boat captain who would have to sort of, you know, drive the vehicle in that direction. And then once we saw it, we use these really expensive organic cereals and we’d grab a handful of it and throw it at the poop so that we could remember where it was because something in the ocean that’s floating will be there one second and then disappear the next. So for some reason only this cereal would float and it was like $6 a box and I never had to buy it, thankfully, or I wouldn’t have, but you could throw the cereal in and then you could come back to it and then scoop it up.

Zrioka: Wow. That’s a very involved process for collecting what amounts to a big piece of poop.

Rolsky: Yeah. Yeah. And the grossest part was that you would have to fill out kind of this form about how uh, the poop looked, where it was, all that good stuff. And all of the descriptions were food-based or most of them were so pancake and egg drop soup. So you know, those are further ruined for the rest of my life. And it’s straight up like it looks like egg drop soup. If I take egg drop soup and put green food coloring in it, it’s killer whale poop.

Zrioka: Wow. 

Rolsky: Yeah. So you can carry that with you and take that wherever you want.

Zrioka: So that in itself is an incredibly challenging process just to collect samples so you can actually conduct research on it and draw conclusions. What else is challenging about studying marine life? Other than the ocean itself being like super inhospitable towards people.

Rolsky: I mean you kind of captured it there, you know, we’re not, we’re not very good at studying the ocean. So when people talk about how it’s, you know, we’ve explored more of space or Mars than the ocean, it’s because it’s very difficult to access certain parts of it. And you know, we can, we can kind of replicate what’s done on the, on land in the lab. You know, we can create environments similar to that. You can’t really create the ocean in the lab, especially the marine mammals. You only have a really small window to sort of study them. You know, they surface as they, they interact with each other, they talk to one another share, that’s fine. But then if they take a deep dive, we’re done, we can’t study them anymore. So it’s really difficult to sort of get a grasp on a lot of these organisms just because the ocean itself is so difficult to get a grasp on.

Zrioka: So, uh, you do one thing that I think almost every kid wants to do at some point in their life, growing up, which is be a marine biologist. Though, you kind of balk at that term. Can you like walk me through the whole marine biologist thing?

Rolsky: So I think, I think Seinfeld kind of ruined that one. When George says he’s a Marine biologist and he makes it up, tries to save the whale with the golf ball. It’s just such a broad term. So it’s not bad. It’s like saying I’m a biologist. Yeah. Some people are going to say, okay, what does that mean? And what, okay. What do you study? You could study as a biologist, you could study the smallest thing. The biggest thing, just the same as me and marine biologist could study phytoplankton or it could study blue whales. It’s just really vague. It’s a cool saying. I don’t have anything else to replace it with, so I’ll keep it. Sure. But, but if I, if I go to a marine mammal conference, I’m not going to say that just because people are going to laugh at me, but at the end of the day, what we’re doing in the ocean is the same thing as what people are doing, you know, with wolves somewhere and you know, or with like marmots somewhere, it’s, it’s all the same type of analysis. It’s just with the different organisms. So you know, I don’t know at terms are so weird. Yeah. I w I, I’m just going to keep saying it because it annoys people, but at the end of the day, I don’t even know what to call myself. That’s the nicest thing. I could probably call myself as a marine biologist, but thank you. George Costanza for that one.

Zrioka: Seriously, ruin it for all of us.

Rolsky: Yup.

Zrioka: So you love the ocean. Can you tell me a little bit about why you like the ocean? Did you grow up near the water, you know, and how did you become interested in becoming an ocean researcher?

Rolsky: So yeah, part of my early life was on the water in California and I thought it was just so cool because uh, I kind of coupled it with also fishing. So in Montana I used to fish a lot and when you look at the water, you just have no idea what’s in there. It’s, it’s the unknown. So every time I looked, you know, on the water, at least in California, I was expecting to see a cool dorsal fan or like a humpback breach, something like that. And just the potential for something cool to be there was really exciting for me. So I was just, you know, cause he, it’s the unknown. You can be on the boat and have no idea what’s underneath you. Most time it’s nothing, it’s just water. But, you know, maybe one out of a thousand times, there’s like a cool dolphin under there. So I was, uh, I was really influenced by that from a young age.

Zrioka: So I think most people would talk about the unknown and then they’d couple that with fear of the unknown. And I’m one of those people. The ocean is very scary to me. I don’t like knowing, not knowing what’s underneath me. So like was that ever something that bothered you or is it just like more curiosity?

Rolsky: Curiosity. That’s awesome. So when I got scuba certified, uh, and, and the scuba instructor told me that when you’re in the ocean, kind of all the animals just expect you to be there and they just assume you’re a really weird looking fish and uh, they just go, “Okay. This weird looking fish is hanging out and then that’s cool.” So it kinda gave me the impression, it’s solidified it that once we’re in there it’s okay. But, uh, you know, if I saw a shark, I’d be scared. If I was swimming along and I saw that, you know, those teeth, then I’d definitely be terrified. Other than that, I’m pretty cool with the ocean.

Zrioka: You’ve never seen a shark while you’re scuba diving?

Rolsky: I have, but it was a shark that doesn’t bite. It was a nurse shark. And they use section to feed. So I mean it works. It would just suck on my skin. And that’s cool. I mean, that’d be a cool story to tell.

Zrioka: Have you ever seen anything scary while you’re scuba diving or had any weird experiences? Either location or just like something odd that happened that was memorable?

Rolsky: I was scuba diving in Monterey and, uh, the dive instructor was in front of me and the kelp was so dense that it pulled, uh, the regulator out of my mouth. And so I reached down and did the normal scuba pickup and put it back in my mouth and then he was gone. So that was kinda scary for a second.

Zrioka: Lost your instructor in a sea of kelp? Or like a forest of kelp, rather.

Rolsky: Yeah. Yeah. And we were being followed by a sea lion that was really curious. So I kinda thought that sea lion might bring me to safety because you read all those stories about dolphins. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t, but I just went North and then start going South and we found each other and it was a happy ending.

Zrioka: Wow. So when we were talking a little while ago, you mentioned something about an otter.

Rolsky: Yeah. So I saw an otter and that same area and it was so cute and I just remember, you know, it kind of brings me back to the movie “Elf” when, when he sees the raccoon and he goes, come here. And I did that. I was like, “Oh, you’re so cute.” And then it just came at me and tried to attack me. And uh, it was, it was one of the biggest bummers in my life because it was so cute, but it just wanted nothing to do with me and wanted me to be probably dead. That’s why I kind of came after me. So I’ve, yeah, again, I’ve been around, you know, quote unquote sharks. I’ve been around sea lions, I’ve been around predators. But you know, the, the most threatening thing that I’ve ever seen was an otter, which is a bummer.

Zrioka: Wow.

Rolsky: Yeah.

Zrioka: Yeah. I mean that’s like such a disconnect between this cute cuddle thing, but I love otters. Like one of my favorite things at the zoo.

Rolsky: Don’t be cute if I can’t pay you. If you’re going to be cute, let me pet you. I mean, I think that’s just a really basic thing that if I could complain to nature, that would be my number one complaint.

Zrioka: What is, uh, what’s your favorite thing about your job?

Rolsky: My favorite thing about my job is the opportunity to take or to try to take really complex, interesting scientific information and relay it to people so that they can understand it and care about it. There’s, there’s so much really amazing staff in science and research, but it stays in this lingo that is super difficult to understand and you can’t really disseminate really easily. You have to break it down and sort of package it into something that most people can relate to. So, ASU provides a lot of really great opportunities to connect to the public. And there’s so many schools around here. I just spoke at a, uh, elementary school a couple of weeks ago and talk to the kids about plastic pollution. And it was just, it’s so awesome to connect with people and be able to take this stuff and break it down and show them that, you know, this goofy bearded weirdo can become a scientist so you can become a scientist. And, and I think that’s, that’s probably the coolest part of my job, you know, despite the sad parts of research and uncovering things that are difficult to deal with, the, the happiest part is just connecting with people and showing them how accessible sciences.

Zrioka: Oh, I’m sure it evens out all the stuff you discovered too, because you’re getting more people aware and active and involved in like this huge problem that truly affects everyone. Not just people who live in California or Hawaii or Australia or what have you. You know, we all eat fish, right?

Rolsky: Sure. So, yeah, we all have a connection to the ocean and, and you know, being able to, to show people that connection and, and then also show them how they can make a difference is a big deal because it’s, you know, we kind of assume that that all of the coastal parts of the United States are responsible for pollution, but it’s not really the case. You know, it’s all, we’re all connected as one and there’s a really diverse way that, that, that waste gets distributed, you know, into the ocean or around the United States. So we all kinda have a part to play. And so the negative is, yeah, we have a part to play the pollution, but the positive is, yeah, we also have a part to play with, with solving this problem and, and being less of a, of a pollution monster than we are. And so it’s really great to be able to connect with people and show them that they can make a difference.

Zrioka: So in terms of like outreach and science education stuff is Lab Casual, kind of like an outgrowth of that?

Rolsky: I always like to encourage students to get into research because it was an area that I didn’t really have any help with. And it’s so important to get on your resume to get work experience. And, and I’ve worked with so many students now and it’s, it’s thing I’m, I’m literally the most proud of in the world is that I think I’m on student 38 that I’ve gotten either into a lab on campus or an internship or you know, I’ve helped get into a med school, something like that. And I worked with one student named Anna Guerrero and she was incredibly talented, you know, with her artwork. And she also had an affinity for science. And so we worked together and found her, someone to do research with who was really keen on anatomical structures and evolution. And it was just perfect for Anna. And so, you know, we worked together, she, and then she, she knew I loved Darwin and she drew me a picture of Darwin in this really regal pose and she wrote “Darwinning.” And I just thought this would be the most awesome shirt ever. So, you know, I’ve worked with a couple of groups and we put on a shirt and thought, you know, let’s sell it. And then all the proceeds can go to charity. And, and since then it’s just kind of become this awesome little charity group. And, and Anna drew an amazing picture of a sea turtle that’s made out of plastic pollution and it’s not S-E-A turtle, it’s S-E-E turtle, cause it’s hard to recognize and it was just the most beautiful thing. And so we’re selling that one and you know, it’s a little side project, but the really cool thing about it is that it’s connected with people all over the world. And you know, they’ve seen the shirt and said this is really cool. But then they’ve sent me these plastic from the area. And so I went from thinking, “Oh this is just a charity” to “Oh my gosh, I’m connecting with people in England!” And now they’re sending me, you know, beach samples from there, from Bournemouth. And I’m analyzing them and getting like a spatial distribution of plastics around the world just from this charity. So that’s always cool.

Zrioka: Oh, so it’s a, it’s a clothing brand, I guess?

Rolsky: I don’t know.

Zrioka: Brand is kind of, it’s not Gucci, right?

Rolsky: I mean it’s a little, it’s a little extra.

Zrioka: It’s a little Guuci.

Rolsky: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t really know what it is. It’s just her talents and me trying to be a part of that. But I don’t have the talents, so I’m just kind of using her talents to connect with people. And we’re also making a shirt now that says “citizen scientist” and it says “we wave back at the ocean,” and then we’re hoping that the people that wear those are going to do beach cleanups. And then you know, these bright colors so that you don’t get, you know, you don’t lose your child if you’re doing a beach cleanup, but it also is very, you know, grabs attention and you can talk, Oh, how can I, what are you doing? How can I help?

Zrioka: That’s great. Adds further utility to it.

Rolsky: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And then, yeah, so we don’t take any of the money. It gets donated to either like a plastic pollution cause or we donated to a group out here that trains therapy, dogs to work with at risk kids, Gabriel’s Angels. They’re amazing. And so we got to raise money for them. We drew had a shirt, a Pavlov.

Zrioka: Oh right. Yeah. “Everyone needs Pavlovin.”

Rolsky: Pavlovin, yeah. So it’s really fun. There’s a lot of cool nerdy things. I mean, as a scientist if you’re told, Oh you should make something nerdy. Oh my gosh. Like your brain explodes. There’s so many things to make nerdy. Right.

Zrioka: So, uh, where can people find these clothes?

Rolsky: We have a Teespring store. Just type in “Lab casual.” And they can go by, we have like a sea turtle tote bag, which is kind of cool. Which is reducing plastic use.

Zrioka: Back to your KEDtalk. So how did you prepare for it? Can you tell me a little about your thought process and your thinking, but what you want to tell people and then like how’d you practice it? Did you practice on friends or colleagues or what have you?

Rolsky: So I took the most normal approach to practicing. And I would go into a room in my house and read it to my gecko.

Zrioka: You have a gecko. What’s his name?

Rolsky: Guillermo.

Zrioka: Guillermo the gecko.

Rolsky: Guillermo the gecko. He’s, he’s had some hardships. So he lacked a little bit of, uh, vitamins in his life and developed a metabolic bone disorder disease.

Zrioka: How does that affect him?

Rolsky: He’s just fragile.

Zrioka: Oh, okay.

Rolsky: And his, he’s got kinda chicken wing arms now. So he crawls, he doesn’t really walk, but you know, he, he makes the best of it. He’s the true story of perseverance just because he lives, he lives his life like a normal gecko, but he’s kind of broken. Um, so I read it to him because he’s really judgy and I feel like if I were to mess up or something would not be, you know, genuine, he would kind of give me a look. So Guillermo really helped me to, to perfect that. So naturally, the last time I read it to him, I literally hit every single word that I needed to and got super confident. And then I sat in front of the camera and I forgot everything because maybe I needed to bring Guillermo with mw. But because I didn’t have him, I just, everything deleted.

Zrioka: Well, you still did great. And I’m sure Guillermo was a big part of that.

Rolsky: Yeah. I mean, he’s, he’s the reason why I live my life the way I do.

Zrioka: Wake up every day for Guillermo.

Rolsky: I mean, why wouldn’t I? He’s just perfect.

Zrioka: So aside from Guillermo, uh, what’s your favorite animal specifically ones you study?

Rolsky: Uh, yeah. Killer whales. Killer whales are my absolute favorite animal in the world and will always be there. They’re the most complex predator that I’ve ever been. I haven’t worked directly with wolves. They’re kind of like, you know, when people talk about a social system, it’s wolves, but killer whales are just the most dynamic, incredible, emotional animals ever been around in my life.

Zrioka: I think I’ve heard them described as like wolves of the sea. Yeah, absolutely. You know, their social structure and like, they’re really sophisticated hunting patterns.

Rolsky: Absolutely. Yeah. So they’re, they’re called the wolves of the sea. They’re a matriarchs, like elephants. So there’s a, there’s a really strong female presence in charge, which is why they do so well, you know, because obviously women are better than us. And so, uh, they have, you know, for the longest time when I was studying them, they had a, there was a killer whale named Granny who was leading the pods that I was studying and she was thought to be over a hundred years old. Yeah. And they all have their movement patterns where to find food, you know, where to rest, where to, where to play. Those were all coming from her. And so the reason why they persisted was because she had such a strong influence on them and they’re just so smart. It’s unreal to me how each, each little eco type in its respective location has developed these incredibly smart skills to be able to, you know, flourish in their environments. It’s mind blowing.

Zrioka: Do we know if killer whales’ success depend on like having a really elder leader like that?

Rolsky: Absolutely. Yeah. Yep. She would lead them everywhere.

Zrioka: Well that’s incredible too, because if you think about how much, like the ocean has probably changed in a hundred years and she’s been adapting and learning and finding new ways and new avenues to like, succeed is pretty incredible. And like that speaks to their intelligence.

Rolsky: Absolutely. Yeah. And they would, I mean, when, when unfortunately when she passed or when other strong female presences pass, it’s a little chaotic for them because they’re, they’re kind of lost. But they learn things before we do. You know, there’s, I’ll try to keep it brief, but there’s, there’s people that study sharks in shallow water that flipped the sharks upside down because if they don’t have water going through their gills, their body just sort of says, okay, chill out. We’re just going to kind of go to sleep. And then there was a report of a killer whale preying on a great white shark, and the killer whale had the great white and its mouth and the great white was upside down. And so they started looking into it more and they found out that killer whales will prey on like sting rays. And when they go to, uh, to attack this thing away, they actually go upside down. They grab this thing, right? They right themselves and now the sting ray’s upside down, the body goes asleep. There’s relatively no chance of it hurting the killer whale. So they’ve figured that out before we do. I mean, they talk when they’re under the water and there’s a situation coming up where they want to prey or they want to do something, they eat something, they talk to one another, they communicate, it’s, it’s insane and they adjust to whatever situations going on and then they, they end up being successful. It’s really incredible to see.

Zrioka: How much do we know about like how, I mean, I don’t know if this is precisely your area of expertise, but like how much do we know about how specifically the communicate, I mean obviously like, you know, whale songs and all that, but like can we parse out what they’re saying to each other to a degree?

Rolsky: I think we can, I think we can start to attribute certain calls to certain behaviors. And so now there’s scientists that can actually listen to hydrophones and they can say, Oh that’s, that’s L pod, you know, they’re using that weird dialect. So you’ve got little interesting characteristics and ticks that are different than it’s, it’s really, it’s really interesting because it looks just like what we look like. So if we, if we, you know, subject a certain plastic to this machine we use, we get a signal, right. And I can tell you, I can look at a signal and say, that’s HDPE or that’s PET or styrofoam. And so they can listen to a hydrophone call the killer whale and say, “Oh yeah. L pod that’s J pod. That’s K pod.” It just based on that same looking thing on the, on the research instrument. So yeah, they can usually tell they’ve got little dialects. It’s really just, I mean, and then sometimes they’ll get together and they’ll face each other. You know, every like five years they do this. I’ve never seen it. It’s a bit another bummer in my life. But two pods that coexist in the same area, well, we’ll come together after a long time and face each other and just talk. There’s just a bunch of talk and then after that they start, they get really close to one another and touch fins and, and communicate that way. It’s just, it’s, they’re, they’re just catching up, you know, they’re just having a chat.

Zrioka: A whale congress.

Rolsky: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And it’s really, I mean, it’s not just one sound, it’s a bunch of different sounds. So they’re communicating with one another. It’s, it’s the most amazing thing ever.

Zrioka: And there’s still so much we don’t know about, like just that interaction in general, right?

Rolsky: We have no idea. We don’t know why that happens. And you know, I work with them for, you know, I’ve been on the water with them a lot and I’ve never seen that happen. So I don’t know why it happens every couple of years. I don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s just so cool to hear about it. You know, I’ve talked to others that have seen it and I’m really jealous, but it’s, it from them just hearing about it is really cool.

Zrioka: So outside of, uh, your research and what you do on a day to day, you know, like what are some of your hobbies? What do you do to unwind, you know, w what do you enjoy outside of, uh, you know, marine mammal and other animal poop.

Rolsky: Sure. Okay. Well, yeah, I’m glad my life can just be poop, but um, you know, it’s okay. I respect that. Yeah. I kinda, yeah, it’s good. I like to play flag football. So I play, uh, you know, on a team called Desert Heat right now. Okay. And we played a bunch of different leagues and there, it’s just really fun. You know, everyone’s got their own little diverse background and stress and, but we’re on the field and we just play together and it’s a lot of fun. You get beat up and you know, some games are good, some games are bad, but it’s, it’s, I really enjoy that. It’s a lot of fun. But yeah, I mean, Arizona is an awesome place to live. There’s a lot of really great hiking opportunities. You can go look for snakes in the desert or you can go fishing. And I like to do all that stuff as well. It’s pretty fun.

Zrioka: Is it hard to turn off like your biologist brain when you’re like going for a hike and looking at animals and stuff?

Rolsky: Oh yeah. That never shuts off. Yeah. You cannot turn it off. Like you’re always going to be thinking scientifically. So even when I go hiking, I go with people that are, that are, you know, herpetologists so I can learn about them. So my friend Scott, he’s really amazing with being able to identify snakes and he’s worked on projects where they milk them to try to understand the venom. Um, so we’ll go off the trail and it’s just automatically, you’re like, you know there’s a flicker and know there’s a, you know, there’s this species of lizard and that species of bird and that species of plant and, and you study the ecosystem. So, but it’s really cool because you can get an appreciation for a bunch of other organisms that you would never study before.

Zrioka: If you go anywhere with the right people, the world’s a classroom. Right?

Rolsky: Right. Yeah, exactly. And you can, you can apply the same skills that you use in your little niche to other niches and other species and it’s, it’s really an incredible, you just get such a fascination for Arizona cause there’s so much that it has offer.

Zrioka: Back to microplastics. You talked to in your KEDtalk about how one thing people can do is like pay attention to the material of clothes that they’re buying because polyester, it’s unique fiber that degrades really quickly and that just goes down the drain and eventually ends up in the ocean. Can you think of any other like everyday examples that you know anyone can do to like kind of curb their plastic consumption and waste?

Rolsky: Sure. I mean that’s a, it’s a really great question but it’s really tough because there are certain types of plastic items that are necessary. You know, if you go to a hospital, there’s IV bags and syringes. Those are all very necessary uses of plastic. This plastic on airplanes. I’m sure that’s really essential. I think the, the best approach to take is to just find plastics that are easily replaceable. So I, you know, I carry around bamboo utensils and a metal straw and a reusable bag because that’s really easy for me to use. And you know, I bought all that for under $10. So it’s doable. I think if people resist those types of plastics, they’ll, they’ll, I mean if everyone did that, for example, in United States, that would be a huge impact, you know, because it’s just, it’s used so often, so quickly and just thrown away and it’s hard to recycle because it has food on it. So, you know, stay away from plastics that we can’t recycle, that are easily replaceable. If everyone did that, there would just be a wave of change in the ocean, which would be really nice.

Zrioka: So one thing I started doing since I started talking to you was I — you know those Jif peanut butter cups?

Rolsky: Absolutely.

Zrioka: Yeah. So for like two years now, every day, my little snack is Granny Smith apples and a peanut butter cup.

Rolsky: You’re talking my language.

Zrioka: But like I’d always just toss a peanut butter cup. So now I just get a big jar of peanut butter and slap it in a little Tupperware that I wash out at the end of the day. Yeah.

Rolsky: Small changes! You’re making me hungry.

Zrioka: I owe that to you, Charlie.

Rolsky: Thank you. I’m honored that, yeah, the big peanut butter is now in your pantry. That’s, yeah, but that’s a really great example of how easy you can do it. You know, it’s just, it’s, it’s a little, it’s more cleaning because peanut butter is really tough. So we had a Tupperware, but at the same time you’re, you’re reducing, you know, so much plastic if you just accumulate that over the year, that’s a lot of plastic.

Zrioka: Oh, for sure.

Rolsky: And there’s so many opportunities to do the same thing. Now there’s, there’s little condiment dispensers and, and drinks and snacks that I’ll come in, little plastic containers. So if you can buy the bigger one and just put it in Tupperware, that’s a big reduction of plastic.

Zrioka: Well, another thing that you turned me onto was like if you go to a restaurant and they ask if you want water, say “Yes, but I don’t need a straw.” Just say you don’t need a straw! And they won’t bring you one.

Rolsky: Yeah. Yeah. That’s, I think my next idea for a shirt is going to say something like “allergic to straws.”

Zrioka: There you go.

Rolsky: So that way automatically people see you, they know, you know, there’ll be really confused and they can ask you about it. But yeah, I think that’s awesome. Yeah. It just be, you know, respectful and nice and, and, and my favorite thing to do after that is if they’re receptive to it, then sort of sit down and ask if you can talk to a manager, which is, it sounds scary, but you’re just going to say nice things and, and just say, you know, why is it possible that you guys bring out glasses of water without straws and then specifically make people request one? Because a lot of people don’t really want one. It just comes with it. So you drink out of it.

Zrioka: It’s just habit. You put it in there and you use it.

Rolsky: Right, but you don’t need it. I mean necessarily it’s, and now, I mean, I actually heard the other day, people who drink from more straws have a higher propensity to get the wrinkle lines around their mouth, because you’re, you know, kind of putting your lips together.

Zrioka: Right. You’re pursing your lips.

Rolsky: Right? Yeah. Good. I like that. Stop using straws.

Zrioka: Just get the beauty industry on board.

Rolsky: Sure. Yeah. I mean I know that it’s, it’s essential for, for people that are taken to go staff, you know, you can’t really have a without a lid. I get that. But I mean even then maybe just not ask, just keep the lid and not ask for a straw. There’s just little things that you can do, but little things with how many people live in the United States or even around the world, that would make a really big difference.

Zrioka: Huge difference. Huge difference. Like you said, you don’t have to throw out your whole closet if you have poly blends, but like you make small changes and it’ll, you know, that can add up to like a significant impact.

Rolsky: Right, right. And it’s not your fault, right. It’s not your fault that this clothing was created the way it is. You bought it. You know, I, I’ve even bought stuff from, from, you know, these kinds of workout stores and, and worn it and realize later that it’s polyester, but it feels good, it breathes well. It’s good for exercise. You don’t sweat as much or if you do sweat it, it holds onto, it’s good. So, but you know, and it’s not like the washing machine is equipped to be able to pull all that stuff out or the dryer is equipped to pull all that stuff out. So you kinda just have to, you know, pick your battles, but just little by little, you know, make small changes and, you know, don’t break your budget, don’t throw out your closet. But you know, be more aware of it. Talk to people about it. Cause it’s not like a lot of people do it on purpose. They just don’t know. That’s just, it’s a great opportunity to educate people.

Zrioka: So in terms of science communication, what are some challenges with that and why do you think it’s so important to like convey these type of, even just small steps you can take to reduce plastic pollution?

Rolsky: Science is really cool and it has its own jargon and sometimes the dragon is really difficult for other people to understand. So we’re kind of taught when we’re writing and when we’re, you know, communicating through speak in this, in this one jargon and it’s great for that community. It’s great for grants, it’s great for publications. It’s not great for talking to, you know, the public. Right. And, uh, I mean this goes for any industry, any job that you, you want to be able to communicate what you do and why it’s important. And one of the shortcomings right now, the science community is that we’re not the best at relaying really delicate, specific information to people that aren’t really scientifically trained. And that to me is such a loss because there’s so much to learn. There’s so much to communicate. And if we’re not able to do that, then there’s so much is wasted because people don’t understand it or care about it. I think that’s probably part of the reason why, you know, some, some things are challenged, you know, by the public. There’s a lot of controversy around certain things. And I think it’s just, it’s not because they’re, they’re refusing to accept it. I mean, maybe that’s part of it, but the other part is that maybe we aren’t spelling it out in a way that’s easy for them to understand. So, you know, it’s, it’s up to us to create more opportunities to be able to communicate this stuff and get people interested and excited. And, and I think really so much of that lies in working with kids because kids are sponges and they’re, they’re just not tainted by anything. They’re just so open. And some of the most challenging questions I’ve ever received were from children, not from PhDs. Yeah. I had one kid that asked me, she, I think she was five, she asked me if killer whales drank water and my brain just shut down for like 30 minutes. I dunno. I just kind of looked off in the distance and, and just wondered what I was doing to myself.

Zrioka: So can you answer that question though? Cause now I want to know.

Rolsky: Ah, okay. So I think they, they, there’s processes by which animals in the ocean, especially marine mammals can get water. A lot of it can come from their prey. So their prey might be able to, you know, take in salt water and sure. Yeah. But I, I don’t want to ever be asked that if I’m asked that during my defense, I might fail my PhD so hopefully she’s not there and asking that question. But at the same time, I adore her for thinking that way. And it’s just so reflective of the fact that sure, you don’t have to be trained and all this stuff, but you can still have a perspective that’s so appreciated and incredible because you know, you’re thinking and you’re curious. And every time I get sad because of research or because you know, it’s, it’s a difficult lifestyle, you know, go talk to a group of kids and it’s just fills my batteries. I mean they’re, they’re awesome. And, and you know, ASU has so many cool events where we can connect to the public and I can have them look at whale poop and, and dig for microplastics. And it’s just so cool to see how people can connect to it and, you know, carry the message forward.

Zrioka: So if there’s one thing you want people listening right now to know about your work, what would it be?

Rolsky: That you can make a difference that just you being aware of your lifestyle. Maybe making one small change. That’s a huge difference. It might be small to you. It’s big to the organisms in the ocean. And, and if you talk to people, if you, if you change your lifestyle, tell someone about it. Tell your family, you know, tell your friends. Maybe they’ll start doing it. They get to get your kids excited, especially locally in Arizona, you know, you can study the ocean and just be here. You can still be interested in the ocean. You still make an impact on the ocean. So no matter where you are on that planet, you really, it’s impossible not to have some sort of impact on the ocean and vice versa. So I think that if my one message would be to just be aware of these things and tell people about it, if you make a change and help be part of this huge wave.

Zrioka: If you’re interested in more from Charlie Rolsky, watch the ASU KEDtalks video at research.asu.edu/kedtalks. Subscribe to her podcast through your favorite podcast directory and find us on Facebook and Twitter @ASUResearch.

A legacy of ocean sustainability, all tide up

Located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona State University might seem an unlikely place to study the ocean. But Charlie Rolsky is not the only ASU researcher plunging into marine research. Faculty and students across many disciplines are working to create sustainable water solutions for the future.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we take a deeper dive into research on the oceans that cover more than two-thirds of our planet. Here’s a look at some more of the innovative research on ocean sustainability coming out of ASU.

Dynamic ocean organisms

Microscopic organisms in the ocean, called phytoplankton, turn carbon dioxide into sugar and produce oxygen as a byproduct. In this way, the oceans work as a biological carbon pump, absorbing excess CO2 from the atmosphere.

Susanne Neuer, a plankton ecologist and professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, studies phytoplankton in the subtropical Atlantic Ocean and the Canary Islands, where carbon pumping efficiency is much less efficient. By collecting samples of ocean water and analyzing phytoplankton particles, Neuer’s lab is uncovering the unknowns about the ocean’s ability to “breathe.”

It all comes out in the wash

Researchers in the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering, led by Director Rolf Haden, are working to analyze microplastics in oceanic samples from vast vertical depths of seawater. Their research has uncovered that the “grey water” from washing machines, used to clean plastic-based synthetic fabrics, is depositing a stew of microplastic particles up to 1,000 meters below sea level in our oceans.

The discovery of greatest concern to researchers was that a majority of the microplastics are resistant to further breakdown and will become increasingly challenging for the planet’s animals and plants to cope with.

“The important thing, I believe, is that pollution is not caused by someone else. It is caused by us,” Halden said.

Sea to table

Marine biologist Beth Polidoro, an associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, studies the effects of pollutant chemicals on marine species and people who eat seafood in Arizona and around the world.

In the Philippines and American Samoa, Polidoro and her team analyzed the impact of contaminants on marine species and environments. The team then conducted educational workshops and training to combat the contamination they discovered. Locally, Polidoro and her team found microplastics, pesticides and metals in fish caught in Phoenix lakes and ponds — suggesting a need for increased regulation of these waterways and transparency for local fishermen.

Sustainability surveillance

Coral reefs are worth $1 million per square kilometer per year. Yet humans are killing reefs by developing coastlines, dumping sewage into their waters, using corals for jewelry and overfishing the reefs.

Greg Asner, director of ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, and his wife and research partner Robin Martin, a remote-sensing expert and associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, are mapping a course for preserving these endangered corals and other marine life.

The pair is creating detailed maps of coral reefs using an advanced suite of technologies mounted aboard the Global Airborne Observatory aircraft and artificial intelligence devices on the water.

Ocean ethics

Water is a precious resource, but can humans agree on how to conserve it properly? That is one question posed by ASU’s Global Ethnohydrology Study, which explores the relationship between culture and our perceptions of water issues.

Sarah Patel, an ASU alumna and former undergraduate researcher in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, explored how people viewed wastewater reuse in Guatemala, Fiji, New Zealand and Spain.

She found that people’s willingness to reuse treated wastewater differed across the countries. In Fiji and Guatemala, cost was a motivating factor, but it was not in Spain or New Zealand. However, participants in all of the countries were more inclined to reuse wastewater to preserve the resource for the future and to help save wildlife.

“Most of the people we interviewed were geared toward sustainability and preventing shortages for the future,” Patel says.

The Biodesign Institute is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new start-up companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.