Ocean Diagnostics’ Community Scientist Shares Microplastics Knowledge with Victoria Tourists
The best way to get to know environmental issues in your neighbourhood is to explore them first-hand through community science. That’s the philosophy of Ryan Hou, volunteer coordinator for Ocean Diagnostics’ recently released microplastics pilot project in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada.
As a community scientist, Ryan learned about microplastic pollution on Vancouver Island beaches through hands-on work. Equipped with this knowledge and a marine biology degree, Ryan aspires to share this information with tourists in his current role as a naturalist for Orca Spirit Adventures.
“Some people may not know that something so simple, like a microplastic, can have an impact on the environment” - Ryan Hou
“Some people may not know that something so simple, like a microplastic, can have an impact on the environment,” Ryan explains why community science and sharing this knowledge is important to him.
Community science, sometimes referred to as citizen science, occurs when the public contributes to the collection of data to help advance science. Data collection depends on the question that is being addressed. Community science projects tend to be led by scientists or organizations that prepare the data and report it to the scientific community or decision makers.
Growing up near the Great Lakes in Ontario, Ryan came to understand environmental issues near his hometown of Windsor. When he moved to Vancouver Island to pursue his marine biology degree at the University of Victoria, he became keen to learn about environmental issues affecting the Pacific Northwest.
“I wanted to get connected with this area of the world and learn about the issues here, so I decided just to dive into it." - Ryan Hou
“I wanted to get connected with this area of the world and learn about the issues here, so I decided just to dive into it. I saw Ocean Diagnostics’ request for volunteers and said, ‘why not’” says Ryan.
Ryan came across Ocean Diagnostics’ call for volunteers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when he had some extra time. Curious and eager to learn, he accepted the position of volunteer coordinator and microplastics sampler.
“Microplastics seem to be a newer and underexplored area of pollution. Not a lot of people realize the plastics in the environment do not disappear." - Ryan Hou
“Microplastics seem to be a newer and underexplored area of pollution. Not a lot of people realize the plastics in the environment do not disappear,” explains Ryan.
Microplastic pollution is a young science. There is still a lot to discover, which makes community science important.
Microplastics include plastics that are five millimetres or less in size and they can come from a variety of sources. When community members search their area for microplastics, it helps scientists understand what kind of microplastics are in different communities and gives decision makers information about the sources of microplastic pollution so they can create solutions to mitigate it.
During Ocean Diagnostics’ six-month pilot project, community scientists collected 240 sand samples and 2,426 microplastic particles. Ryan coordinated and collected microplastics along with two groups of volunteers at the Cordova Bay sampling site. He took turns marking sampling sites, scooping sand into sieves and searching for microplastics.
The study resulted in the largest microplastic pollution dataset on British Columbia shorelines and found 81% of microplastic pollution on Greater Victoria Area beaches is foam.
Ryan explains this hands-on work is an incredible way to learn. “I didn’t just sit there and enjoy the scenery. I got my hands dirty,” he says. Volunteering gave him a tangible understanding of the microplastic pollution issue.
“Projects like this engage the public and that is how people learn. Instead of being told this is a problem and these are the numbers, if they can get involved, they learn more about the issue" - Ryan Hou
“Projects like this engage the public and that is how people learn. Instead of being told this is a problem and these are the numbers, if they can get involved, they learn more about the issue,” he shares.
Ryan now spends his days in what some would consider a dream job, a naturalist on Orca Spirit Adventures. As an education enthusiast and curious learner, Ryan loves sharing his environmental knowledge with guests aboard the tourism boat.
“I love seeing their faces light up when they learn something they didn’t know before,” he explains with heartfelt enthusiasm.
Ryan has had incredible experiences exploring the Pacific Northwest, including a recent moment at work when a humpback whale swam up to next the boat he was on. Having seen plastic and microplastic pollution in the same habitat as these marine mammals, Ryan believes this association is key to encourage solutions.
Photo Credit: Ryan Hou
Through his experience as a community science volunteer coordinator, Ryan learned about the effects of microplastic pollution on the local community. He is now able to apply that knowledge in his role as a naturalist to connect visitors to the problem. They can go home and apply that lens and potentially do their own projects to see what's happening in their own communities.
To learn more about the microplastic pilot project download the public report here.
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Interested in starting your own project? Reach out to us.
Ocean Diagnostics Inc. (ODI) is a Victoria, B.C.-based environmental impact company that diagnoses and protects our planet from the threats of plastic pollution and biodiversity loss. Through innovative technology, cutting-edge laboratory capabilities and collaborative partnerships, ODI enables scientists and the public to collect the data needed to influence local and global solutions.