Asta Mail: Citizen Science and an Expedition to the Great Lakes

Written by on November 14, 2013 in Interviews, Other News

Editor’s Note — Asta Mail is a Canadian marine biologist studying for her Masters of Professional Science at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. While studying at RSMAS, Asta was also the Expedition Coordinator for the One Water Story Expedition with Pangaea Exploration that took place this summer in the Great Lakes of North America.

Asta Mail Sailing.

Asta Mail Sailing. Photo courtesy of Asta Mail.

The Great Lakes Expedition lasted four months and covered 14 inland cities over 7,000 nautical miles. More than 30 guests participated in the expedition. With the help of several different researchers, they studied many scientific issues, including micro plastic and chemical pollution, and nutrient and carbon dioxide concentration.

Asta’s interest is in citizen science initiative development and marine educational outreach. MST recently spoke with her about the Great Lakes expedition and the importance of citizen science.

MST: What are some of the biggest problems in the Great Lakes?
AM: The Great Lakes are a natural wonder; they contain approximately 20% of the world’s freshwater resources, over 37 million people inhabit their shores, and as many as 26 million people rely on them for drinking water. The lakes are fishing grounds, shipping routes, and recreational space for Americans and Canadians. Unfortunately, the waters here have undergone significant ecological and physical changes over the last 60 years, mainly due to anthropogenic activities. The main issues facing the lakes include chemical and plastic pollution, and management of invasive species, declining water levels, and the effects of climate change.

MST: Are they similar to problems faced by the oceans?
AM: As the name of our project The One Water Story suggests, all waters are connected. The Great Lakes drain into the Atlantic Ocean, and they face common threats: overfishing, point and non-point source pollution, and significant changes in system ecology.

MST: What kind of data did you collect? What will be done with it now?
AM: This summer, we were lucky to work with four very passionate and knowledgeable scientists from the region. Our guest crewmembers got to participate in the study of micro plastic pollution with Dr. Sherri Mason of SUNY Fredonia University, and the study of chemical compounds absorbed by plastic particles with Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza of the University of Wisconsin Superior. Our crew also collected water samples to study chemical pollution for the Ministry of Environment Ontario. We were also lucky to work with Dr. Laodong Guo of the University of Western Michigan in a study of the nutrient content and concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide in each lake we visited throughout the summer.

All the data we collected is currently being analyzed in laboratories at the professor’s home universities, and the information will be used to help build a better picture of the current state of the Great Lakes. We hope to see some of our citizen science research published in the summer 2014!

MST: What was the best leg of the expedition, personally and scientifically?
AM: All the legs of the expedition were interesting and exciting because we had brand new crewmembers taking part in each leg. I got to meet many interesting people from the Lakes region, each with their own unique reason for participating. I think my favorite expedition was our very last expedition, the Young Adventurer’s program, which was designed to incorporate teenagers into our sailing and research. We had the most passionate, interesting young women on board for this journey and it felt amazing to see them inspired to create change for their home and their waters.

Crew in Chicago.

Crew in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Asta Mail.

MST: Seventy-two feet sounds pretty big, but with as many as 16 people on board, I can imagine it gets pretty crowded. What’s it like to live on the Sea Dragon?
AM: We had 14 people on board at one time this summer, for our undergraduate freshwater research course. It definitely got quite cozy! The nice thing about sailing life though is that everything is done in shifts called ‘watches’. We took turns sailing and collecting samples on deck, cooking, cleaning or relaxing. This made us feel like there was more space, and kept things relaxed and comfortable. I really enjoyed life on board, but it’s definitely not for everyone. It reminds me of camping on the water!

MST: Citizen science projects are becoming more common, but Pangaea Exploration takes it to a whole new level. What are the benefits of participating in a citizen science program for the researcher and the citizen?
AM: There are so many benefits to participating in a citizen science project. For the researchers, citizen science allows you to share your curiosity with others, and to utilize their skills and observations to conduct your research. You also get to involve and educate people with your work, and share your message of conservation with the rest of the world. For the citizens, I like to think that citizen science projects are an opportunity to jump into a totally new field of work; you could be a lawyer, a salesman, or a piano tuner, but you can also study your world as a scientist, and you don’t need to get a science degree to do so! It’s also a great chance to meet new people, challenge yourself, and gain a better understanding of environmental issues and scientific research.

You don’t have to be on a boat like ours to take part in citizen science projects, either. Scientific American and the Citizen Science Alliance both list all sorts of cool opportunities to participate in research projects from the comfort of your own home! Research can be done individually, or with your family and friends. It’s a really cool way to contribute to science, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes a day.

To learn more about Pangaea Exploration, check out our latest Ocean Organization Spotlight!

Girls of the North Star Collaborative using the manta trawl for plastics research.

Girls of the North Star Collaborative using the manta trawl for plastics research. Photo courtesy of Asta Mail.

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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