Reflections from a Researcher-in-Residence aboard the Mighty Saint Lawrence

Jackie Saturno is an environmental scientist specializing in studying marine and land-based plastic pollution. Jackie joined Adventure Canada as the Researcher-in-Residence on the Mighty Saint Lawrence expedition in June 2022. In this article, learn more about what it's like to be a Researcher-in-Residence with Adventure Canada!
Jackie iles des madeleines

Jackie at Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine on the Mighty Saint Lawrence expedition

Despite growing up in the city, being in nature has been a significant part of Jackie’s life since her childhood. She developed a strong connection with the natural environment at a young age from camping trips through Ontario’s provincial parks.

Today, Jackie is an environmental scientist based out of Toronto, Canada, and soon to be moving to the Maritimes! She specializes in studying marine and land-based plastic pollution. During her master’s degree, she was awarded National Geographic’s Early Career grant to fund her fieldwork on Fogo Island, Newfoundland and Labrador for her work on how Atlantic cod are impacted by fishing gear plastic pollution during fishing operations. Prior to this, she worked at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Atlantic salmon conservation on the Avalon and northeastern peninsula of Newfoundland and Labrador.

After spending five years in eastern Canada, Jackie moved back to Toronto. While Jackie was landlocked in southern Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic, she began to scientifically survey the emerging COVID-19 related plastic pollution in her neighbourhood. This project went on to gain national coverage through numerous news outlets such as National Geographic, Toronto Star, Huffington Post Canada, Globe and Mail, and more! Today, she is working on a follow up study funding by National Geographic to expand the study site and involve citizen scientists and researchers around the world to track PPE in their own backyards.

Jackie is a published scientist and National Geographic Explorer (2017 and 2021 grantee). She also works as a research associate at Dalhousie University working on a collaborative project between the provincial and federal government and Indigenous self-governments for species at risk conservation.

Can you tell us about your research and any current projects of yours?

My research on plastic pollution involves many different factors, one of them being monitoring plastic debris and identifying sources and entry points. In the past, I have monitored for fishing gear related plastics that were ingested by Atlantic cod and how fishing gear played a role in emitting plastic fragments into our marine waters during fishing activity.

Now, I am working on monitoring projects that involve aspects of what we call citizen science. Citizen science is a method of involving average citizens to take part in collecting scientific data without necessarily having scientific training or education to do so. They are passionate individuals that want to be a part of the scientific process of collecting data.

For my work, I do this by using an open-sourced application called Marine Debris Tracker. This is an app that can be used to track the amount and types of plastic debris during clean-ups. It’s a great engagement tool but also is useful for scientists to collect data on where plastics end up.

Currently, I am working with my colleagues on an international project that is funded by National Geographic that looks at monitoring data of pandemic-related litter (such as facemasks, gloves, and sanitation wipes) by citizens and researchers alike around the world.

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© Jen Derbach

Jackie documenting data on a beach in Gaspé on the Mighty Saint Lawrence expedition

Can you tell us about how you conducted your research on the expedition?

On board the Ocean Endeavour I had the opportunity to work on my project of surveying for plastic pollution on various beaches and locations that we stopped along the way through the Saint Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. As reaching different sites to collect data can be expensive, especially in more remote settings, it was a unique opportunity to conduct surveys using the Marine Debris Tracker app.

It was also an opportunity to engage with guests while on the Ocean Endeavour as the app can be used by the average citizen to collect data in their own backyards. This data is then logged into an open database where scientists have access to them.

Were there opportunities for guests to participate in helping with your research?

Joining guests on their expeditions at each stop, when arriving to shore I would scout out the local beaches. If I found an accessible beach, I would conduct surveys and invite those interested to join me in searching, identifying, and logging each piece of washed-up plastic debris into Marine Debris Tracker.

Some folks that aided me with my surveys were veteran beachcombers for trash, intending to leave the beach cleaner than how they found it. Therefore, some individuals that aided in the survey were very good at identifying the debris and potential sources.

The experience of involving guests in helping my research was mutually beneficial, as we could ask questions together about the type of plastics that we were finding, like where a clump of styrofoam was breaking up from based on its colour.

Jackie saturno guests survey gaspe

© Jen Derbach

Adventure Canada guests aiding Jackie with a survey on the Mighty Saint Lawrence expedition

Outside of my surveys, I had engaging conversations with guests about the issues surrounding plastic pollution. These types of conversations from concerned citizens are also helpful for me as it influences the types of questions that I ask for research projects, about focusing on the problem from a top-down approach.

Despite consumers’ best intentions, the problem persists. People care about the problem of plastic pollution, but don’t always know where to focus their energy. This shapes me as a researcher to work on projects that have an applicable aspect to them and help lead to policy change.

Has the Researcher-in-Residence program helped advance your research and studies?

As many of the stops on the expedition were in more remote settings, this made for a unique opportunity to be able to collect debris data in areas that may not be surveyed often. As I mentioned, an aspect of my work is incorporating citizen science into our protocols. This allows for a larger reach of data collection as non-scientists can replicate our work to carry out surveys in their own backyards.

This program allowed me to work with guests and engage in discussions aiding me as a researcher by providing a fresher perspective on the bigger picture. It was also much faster to include more people during my surveys to allow one person to log in the data and the other to collect and bag up the garbage to be thrown out afterwards. Also, beach debris is different depending on the area, so identifying items is easier with more people providing more input.

Would you recommend this program to other practicing scientists?

Yes, I would. Travelling to remote areas can be logistically challenging and expensive for a research team to charter a boat and crew. Not only does this program provides scientists with the opportunity to carry out their research projects, but it also allows for a relationship to form between researchers and citizens.

While a typical research vessel involves working strictly with a crew, the level of engagement from guests wanting to learn more about your research makes for a more well-rounded experience. The Adventure Canada team was also a pleasure to work with and incredibly helpful with fieldwork logistics.