Research Revelations Episode 1: Microplastics in fish with Aeliya Grover

by Ella Yee and Selina Xu

This is the first installment of Research Revelations: Conversations with Our Student Researchers, a podcast where Aquila staff members talk to student researchers about their projects and research goals. In this episode, Aquila’s co-assistant multimedia editors Ella and Selina meet with Aeliya Grover (10) to discuss her project on microplastics in fish.

Selina: Hi, I’m Selina.

Ella: I’m Ella.

Selina: And welcome to Research Revelations: Conversations with Our Student Researchers. 

Ella: Today we’re with sophomore Aeliya Grover to discuss her research on microplastics in fish. So thank you so much for joining us, Aeliya. To start off, how long have you been doing research, and what got you started?

Aeliya: I started in eighth grade, I took a hiatus in ninth grade and then I started again in 10th grade. So what got me started? Well, eighth grade Synopsys, which you put your name in, and then they randomly select people, and then you get mentoring, you get funding, and you’re able to do a project. So that’s mainly where research started. But STEM started way before that, since I’d been actively participating in robotics since middle school. Eighth grade was mainly when my interest in research started.

Selina: What are some of the fields that you are interested in?

Aeliya: STEM wise?

Selina: Yes, STEM wise, and for your specific research projects.

Aeliya: I’m into robotics. For my specific research, it has more been environmental science with plastics and the impact of plastics. But other than that, I’m interested in robotics, and I want to try exploring some bio robotics, like prosthetic arms and that kind of stuff.

Ella: Nice. Interesting. So can you talk a bit more about a science project that you’re working on currently?

Aeliya: Yes. So currently, for Synopsys, I’m working on quantifying and finding microplastics in farmed and wild fish. My procedure is, basically I’m taking two fishes from actually Whole Foods, and we’re digesting it by using KOH, which is a base and then that gets filtered. And I use a fluorescent microscope to look for traces of possible microplastics. Now, it’s not actually 100% microplastics, just because of fluorescence. That’s the portion of error in the experiment, since in order for me to actually confirm if it’s a microplastic, I need more advanced equipment. But yeah, that’s what I’m working on right now.

Selina: How did you come up with this idea? How did you develop it?

Aeliya: In eighth grade, I worked on a project of the effect of microplastics on the growth of two bacterial cultures. That led me to do more research after getting an award in that, and I wanted to explore more of that category.

Ella: And also, when you were describing the procedure earlier, it sounded pretty detailed. So how did you come up with that? Or did you kind of have to try things out and then figure things out as you go?

Aeliya: The internet is, of course, very wide. And it’s incredibly informative. I did a lot of reading about other experiments that were similar to mine. And I use similar procedures to theirs.

Selina: And also why specifically are you interested in environmental science versus other types of science?

Aeliya: Well, global warming is, of course, a big issue. And plastics, and the contamination of plastics. It’s funny, because just this evening, we’re going to the lower school to host a poster session to teach the kids about plastic and how it’s impacting our lives. We actually made a YouTube video we shared to all the lower school students. I think someone is writing an article about that. 

Ella: Nice.

Aeliya: But just being the next generation and making an impact on the environment is especially important because, you know, we’re the next generation, it’s our job to step up and make change.

Selina: Yeah, definitely. Going back to your project, how do you think it’s going so far? Do your results match your hypothesis? Is there anything unexpected?

Aeliya: So far, results have been really exciting, because I definitely did not think there would be as [many] possible microplastics as I’m finding.

Ella: So I think one question I had was, for this project, in particular, what was the biggest lesson you learned?

Aeliya: Science takes time. There’s definitely a lot of steps and a lot of processes that you have to get worked out. For example, in this project, I wasn’t really sure how to quantify the microplastics. So, when I started an experiment, I kind of went blind into that. And now looking back, I kind of regret it. I should have probably made a better map of how I’m going to quantify it. But I’m getting a lot of mentorship. And that’s been really helpful.

Ella: What do you think, in general, from all of your experience of doing research, what is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned?

Aeliya: Probably to not make assumptions, because for my eighth grade project, the result we got was totally different than what we expected. And just be open to possibilities.

Selina: Do you think there’s a difference between making a hypothesis versus making assumptions?

Aeliya: Yeah, assumptions is more like you’re set on it. And you’re not really open for other results. Hypothesis is your prediction, but you’re still uncertain about it.

Selina: And then I think you kind of talked about this already. But what do you think is the hardest part about doing research?

Aeliya: Yeah, for my experiment that I’m doing right now, for each individual sample, it takes seven minutes just to look for the microplastics. And even then, I don’t find all of them. And I have to do that for 16 samples. So that’s time consuming. And after a while, you know, you need to take a break and then come back.

Ella: Yeah, definitely. This is a little bit off track. But since you’ve been talking about how much time that it takes for you as a researcher to do this, do you have any tips for just the average person who wants to contribute to the environment in some way to prevent some of the negative impacts of our actions on the environment? What would you say is one thing that people can implement into their daily lives?

Aeliya: I think making a schedule, looking for external organizations that can help you harden down the schedule, because especially for me, I like procrastinating, like a lot of high school students. And if you have a scheduled time set aside for something, and it’s repeatedly, for an entire week, you’re gonna end up getting it done. So you should definitely try looking out for help with external organizations, because then it’s not just you trying to help the environment, it’s like a group of people. And that encourages you to continue pursuing helping the environment.

Ella: Thanks for the tip. So next, you answered Selina’s question about what the hardest part is. But on the flip side, on the more positive side, what would you say has been most rewarding either from this project, or just in general…

Aeliya: Just enjoying the process?

Ella: I guess, what has been your favorite part, if there’s a particular result that when you achieved that result, you were really proud of yourself, or just any part of the process along the way that you really enjoyed?

Aeliya: Favorite part would probably be learning new skills, learning new techniques, because I never used a fluorescent microscope before. So learning about that learning about how to use it was was interesting.

Selina: What kind of impact do you hope to make with the research that you’re doing right now?

Aeliya: Most research is either informational, or it’s an algorithm to help do something. So I think for mine it will be more informational and spreading awareness of microplastics in fish, which could lead to more restrictive policies. Other than that, just informing people about the dangers of microplastics, and probably encouraging the movement of transitioning away from plastics and more to be usable materials.

Ella: What are some examples of common items where we don’t realize that we’re using plastics, which could end up causing harm to the ecosystem? And what are some substitutions that you would recommend?

Aeliya: Totally. I have all of this down in the YouTube video that we sent out to the lower school, but plastic bags, plastic water bottles, just straws in general, all those take time to decompose. It doesn’t get back into the ecosystem. It just breaks down. It’s just there. It stays there. And it just sits in wastelands. It compiles.

Selina: What advice would you have for people who maybe know about climate change and the dangers of plastics but maybe, like don’t have the resources or don’t have time to research benefits or substitutions?

Aeliya: For those people I would suggest…for a lot of opportunities that you get, there’s always going to be another alternative, like plastic water bottles, there’s always going to be somewhere you can find a normal water like a metal water bottle to transition to, and even if you come across Teaspoon, they give out plastic containers but they also provide their … I think they once had a metal water bottle that you can use and they could reuse that when they’re giving you your drink. Stuff like that is definitely out there. It does need a little bit more looking but it’s gonna be somewhere within your eyesight.

Selina: Where do you hope to take your research in the future? And are there any specific topics that you want to explore more?

Aeliya: So for me, I think it’s about collaboration, like working with other labs, other professionals, professors just to see what they’re working on and see what I can do to help. For my research it’s more…it’s not breakthrough. It’s new information, but these professors are working on breakthrough stuff. They’re pushing the boundaries of science. For fields of science, probably still in environmental. But [as] I mentioned before, I think I want to try and do more medical stuff too, even though that’s separate from what I’m doing with environmental [science]. I think for next year, I’m thinking of doing something about a robotic prosthetic arm. But make it reusable, like instead of these metal parts, just make it cheaper by using reusable plastic parts or something like that. 

Ella: Kind of a way to combine different interests.

Aeliya: Right. Yeah, exactly.

Ella: And then one more thing I wanted to ask was, was there a particular person or a group of people who helped to mentor you and inspire you along the way?

Aeliya: Yeah, my mentors have been extremely helpful, just with guiding me and since it’s a newer topic of research, and that kind of stuff for me. So just helping me out and supporting me is really amazing. Thresia, she did a similar experiment with me. And she helped guide me to creating some of the procedures that I’m using, like with quantifying the microplastics, which have been extremely helpful.

Ella: What would be your advice to students who are kind of interested in doing research, but they just have no idea where to start with a topic or what steps they need to take or anything like that?

Aeliya: Yeah, that was totally me when I first started. Research methods is a class here that Mr. Spenner teaches, and he’s really helpful in helping you get your feet wet and just exploring different topics and different categories of science. Otherwise, the internet is amazing at helping you explore different categories of science.

Selina: I think that’s it but is there anything that we didn’t talk about yet that you wanted to?

Aeliya: No, I’m good.

Ella: Thank you so much, Aeliya.

Selina: Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Research Revelations: Conversations with Our Student Researchers. We hope you enjoyed hearing about Aeliya Grover’s project on microplastics in fish. 

Ella: If you are a student researcher and would like to be featured next, please feel free to email us at [email protected].

Selina: This is Selina…

Ella: This is Ella…

Selina: And we’ll see you next time.