And the winner is … Kendall Wontor! This year’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) overall winner is Kendall Wontor, a doctoral student in chemistry. Wontor’s research focuses on microplastics in oysters, with several different aspects to her overall research project.
Wontor spent most of her childhood in Texas, but most recently lived in Hawaii before relocating to Mississippi. Her time in Hawaii sparked her interest in microplastics.
“My favorite things to do were going to the beach and sailing,” said Wontor. “Whenever I would do either, it was pretty common to see small pieces of plastic in the sand and out in the ocean being tossed around in the waves. As a chemist, that really got me interested in the breakdown process of plastics and the problem of microplastic pollution.”
“Microplastics are a diverse suite of contaminants with different polymers, additives, sizes and morphologies,” explained Wontor’s advisor Dr. James Cizdziel, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and coordinator of forensic chemistry. “Microplastics can also attract other pollutants, such as heavy metals, potentially introducing them into the food chain as the plastic is caught on gills or mistaken for prey,” he added.
The first aspect of Wontor’s research is focused on developing new methods to extract microplastics from oyster tissue, and this was the main point of her 3MT presentation. An example of an extraction method is sonication. “By developing and validating this extraction method, I hope to increase the analysis speed and sustainability of microplastics research,” said Wontor.
In the second aspect of her research, Wontor uses chemical digestion to analyze oysters from ten sites across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Here, Wontor is looking for any differences in the numbers, sizes, shapes, and polymer types of microplastics present in the oysters from the different sites. Wontor is also dissecting the larger oysters found to see if the microplastics are localizing in specific tissues, such as the gills, mantle, digestive system, or abductor muscle/heart.
“Microplastics are abundant in the Mississippi River and Mississippi Sound. Oysters are exposed to these small plastic particles. This is a concern because oysters are filter-feeders and the microplastics may interfere with oyster biology. Oysters are a foundational species in the Gulf and an economic resource to the region,” explained Dr. Cizdziel.
Wontor is no stranger to presenting her research. She presented “Microplastics in Oysters from the Mississippi Sound” at the National Environmental Monitoring Conference in a special session on “Analyzing Microplastics in the Environment: Striving to Better Assess Occurrence, Fate and Effects.”
Wontor will represent the UM Grad School at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools’ 3MT competition in North Carolina in February 2022.