Justine Ammendolia’s scientific adventures turn bird shit and garbage glamorous. The 26-year-old marine biologist got her first taste of fieldwork studying seabirds in the arctic as one of National Geographic’s young explorers. Ammendolia calls the experience a “gateway drug into the whole exploration scene.”
Growing up with National Geographic Magazine, Ammendolia had a “Nat Geo dream.” But it wasn’t until an inspiring undergraduate professor, Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs, pushed her to pursue remote research, that Ammendolia joined the ranks of National Geographic explorers. “She had faith in me,” Ammendolia tells me. “I’d never done remote work before, and she was like ‘Okay let’s ship you up to the Arctic and see how you fare out.’”
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Just returned from a month-long expedition cruise spanning from Sable Island to the Canadian/Greenlandic Arctic as a Young Explorer. Witnessing our Northern planet's rich wildlife and sheer beauty has yet again left a profound desire for me to use my life to protect our most fragile environments and it's inhabitants. I am grateful for @AdventureCanada and @ExplorersClub for providing this life changing experience and to my fellow Explorers. #MyAdventureCanada #ExplorersClub #Arctic #Greenland #Nunavut #polarbear #wildlife #ocean #science #womeninSTEM #marinebiology #plasticpollution #CLEAR
In no time at all, Ammendolia found herself on her way to a distant corner of Greenland with plans of monitoring the movement of seabirds via GPS tracker. At 22 she was thrown straight into the action: chartering a helicopter, camping out in a hunting cabin, melting glaciers for water, and learning how to use a gun in case of polar bears. “Our washroom facility was basically pooping in a plastic bag. It was very off-grid,” she adds.
Imagine if you will, being fresh out of college in the middle of the arctic on an expedition sponsored by National Geographic when you realize that the birds you’ve been tagging aren’t coming back, and you’re out $20,000 worth of trackers. As Ammendolia puts it, “Literally, shit hit the fan.”
Despite everything, the good-humored biologist tells me the whole story between laughs: “I proposed to Nat Geo that I was going to put GPS trackers on bird to see where they fly off to, and in my grant report I eloquently described how that all kind of…fucked up. I lost all the trackers—well, I didn’t: the birds just ghosted me. But in this moment of stress in the field I thought, what else can I do? I felt like shit hit the fan, so I said, ‘I may as well just start collecting bird shit and see where that goes.’ So, I jerry-rigged a way to get birds to poop on my notebook and basically just hold them there until they crapped. I put [the samples] in vials, and I brought them back to Canada. I don’t know how I got them past the borders.”
Thinking on her feet and going with the flow have since become skills that have enhanced Ammendolia’s scientific process. She even cites the instance as her favorite learning moment during the expedition. “I was so distraught that all the birds left, and it really kind of paved the way for everything else I did. I realized at that moment: it’s good you’re sad; it’s good you’re angry; it’s good you have all these emotions, but how do you use these emotions and kind of push them towards something more constructive?”
What did she do with all those vials of bird shit after lugging them across the border back to Canada? The project has been on hold for a little bit as Ammendolia was looking for funding, but soon enough she’ll start genome testing the samples in order to analyze the birds’ diets. In the past, dietary studies have had to kill birds and take out their stomachs, but Ammendolia managed to find away to further such research while keeping the birds alive. She’s also hoping to be able to use the samples to test for plastic pollution, the field in which she’s most recently focused.
“I got into the plastics pollution scene a few years ago,” she explains. “It really kind of stemmed from this idea of wanting to conserve our oceans and making sure we don’t cause any more damage with plastics than we already are, ‘cause it’s a pretty gnarly issue right now.”
Ammendolia’s current work involves surveying beaches in Newfoundland for plastics, working under Dr.Charles Mather and Dr. Max Liboiron. She and her three research partners–Jess Melvin, France Liboiron, and Alex Hayward–want to build a sort of pollution profile for the beaches they’re studying in order to “understand what activities influence what plastic landscapes.” Narrowing down a beach’s “niche,” in terms of plastic pollution, can lead to better to better litigation and disposals strategies for certain types of plastics on certain beaches.
So, the four explorers will get in a massive truck with all of their field gear and set off along the beaches looking for garbage. Sometimes they’ll cut open fish to see what they’re eating or attach a net to a boat to check for plastics on the surface, but mostly they do a lot of trash collection. “We’re basically glorified garbage pickers,” Ammendolia laughs. “I sometimes wonder: all my degrees went to picking up garbage.”
She says all this lovingly, of course. In truth she’s incredibly excited about the work she’s been doing, telling me about all the different methods they have for looking for garbage and recording the results. For example, they use a citizen science app, called Marine Debris Tracker App, to log garbage they collect on the beaches. The app marks their location and coordinates and makes the data available for anyone to access. “That’s not a big thing in science: sharing your data,” I’m told. “So, we’re trying to break that paradigm.”
Part of breaking that paradigm also means the three scientists do a lot of community engagement. They talk with mayors, run community beach cleans, and sail with fishermen all along the bay. Even the net they use to collect plastics on the water’s surface is citizen science designed. The pieces to build it are all readily available at a hardware store for closer to $500 Canadian than the industry standard of $4,000.
Such outreach is vital to the task of reducing waste and conserving our environment. Plastic waste “isn’t a problem that’s just for biologists. It’s for everyone.” By informing the public of what’s going on, by sharing data and making it accessible, they can help others join in taking the steps necessary to eliminating waste.
While eliminating plastic pollution might seem like a daunting task, Ammendolia wants people to know that it isn’t as unmanageable as it seems. “With plastics, people freak out when they hear it. They automatically think that all hope is lost and we’re never going to solve it. And the thing that they don’t really realize is that…we have the power to significantly reduce if not eliminate the problem. Now it’s just a matter of getting all the right parties on board…No matter how big the problem seems, it’s manageable. We just have to break it down into smaller building blocks and really kind of collectively work towards our goals.”
It’s this kind of thinking that’s gotten the marine biologist so far. Breaking the problem down, there are many easy ways we can all get involved in conservation, from saying no to plastic bags and bottles to pushing major companies to use less plastic. After all, if a fresh-out-of-college, 22-year-old Justine Ammendolia can overcome $20,000 worth of GPS trackers in a remote corner of the arctic and getting birds to shit on her notebook, then we can probably tackle plastic pollution, a problem that we created.