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I spy with my little eye, good & bad things floating on the ocean: SoapBox Science with Dr Biermann

6 June 2023

Our Dr Lauren Biermann spoke with BBC Radio 2 today about her upcoming SoapBox Science talk this weekend, which will focus on her work using satellite data to detect good and bad things floating on the ocean surface.
Plastic litter in ocean If you missed the feature, you can read a transcript of the fascinating interview with presenter Angela Kalwaites below. And you can find out more about Lauren's SoapBox Science talk this Saturday 10th June here >>

Angela Kalwaites: This is brilliant, really enjoyed talking about this yesterday and we’ve got more today! It’s all to do with Exeter and it’s all to do with science. It’s Exeter University’s SoapBox Science event, which showcases the work of research being done by women, who will then talk about what they do in a speaker’s corner style event based around Exeter Quayside. Among the women taking part will be Dr Lauren Biermann from Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The title of her talk is ‘I spy with my little eye, good and bad things floating on the ocean’, and I’m delighted to say she joins me now. Good afternoon!

Dr Lauren Biermann: Hi Angela, how are you?

Angela Kalwaites: Very well! More importantly, how are you? Tell us a little bit about the format of the Soapbox event, what will be going on?

Dr Lauren Biermann: It’s going to be such an amazing format, it’s going to be such an amazing day. Basically, there is going to be a group of fantastic female scientists from all across the sciences, who are going to be putting themselves outside of their comfort zones really, we’re going to be presenting to the public about the work that we do, literally standing on a soapbox, in a square, and trying to make our science as interesting as possible for the public.

Angela Kalwaites: It sounds amazing. I'll come onto your talk in just a minute, but what caught my ear there was that that you are putting yourselves out of your comfort zone. I guess you're not used to sort of sort of being in the public eye quite as much as that?

Dr Lauren Biermann: Well, it's not just that, Angela, so, this is the first time in my 10-year career that I'm going to be standing up and giving a talk without a PowerPoint presentation behind me. So normally I get to kind of rely on beautiful images that the satellites that I work with capture, and the concept of a picture speaks 1000 words - and I'm almost secondary to my science, and to my slides. But on Saturday it's going to be all me, I'm trying to explain concepts about the work that I do using props that are going to be painted plates - and my 3-year-old daughter running around handing things out! So, it's a whole new world for me and I'm really excited, but quite nervous.

Angela Kalwaites: Yeah, I can imagine. Oh gosh that sounds very terrifying. I love the idea of your daughter being involved in the construction of the stuff as well. That's great but the talk that you're doing as I mentioned is ‘I spy with my little eye good and bad things floating in the ocean’. So, I'm guessing it's all to do with finding pollutants, perhaps?

Dr Lauren Biermann: A whole range of things. So, pollutants, yes. So, I look for plastics that are floating on the surface of the ocean, and in our rivers, but I also look for things like seaweed, and driftwood, and vessels using high resolution satellite data. But I can also use satellites to take the temperature of the ocean and look at the base of the marine food web. So, there's no end to what we can do with these satellites.

Angela Kalwaites: That sounds like you’re using a lot of very high-tech gear. Is it all very cutting-edge?

Dr Lauren Biermann: All very cutting-edge. So, some of the satellites that I use have only existed for the last sort of six years. But the best thing about this data is anyone can use it. So, I use it for my job, but it's all freely available to anyone in the world who has a curiosity about looking at, how many paddle boarders are out in Devon today, for example. And so there's all sorts of things you can do with the satellite data yourself.

Angela Kalwaites: Oh it really does sound fascinating. You know, I've got a thing at the moment about looking at webcams at various parts along with Devon coastline both North and South, and I love it. I love people watching and just watching the waves and watching what's happening. So, I guess this is a much more high-tech version of that.

Dr Lauren Biermann: And a step backwards. So, it really helps you get a scale of things. And I think just like you're saying how you love to watch those webcams, that's exactly how I feel. I get to take a step back and just look at our beautiful Earth from space. And of course, as I said, sometimes I see things that I'm not really that happy to see, like plastics floating in on the ocean surface.

Angela Kalwaites: How important is it to spot these things, Lauren?

Dr Lauren Biermann: I mean, I think again, a picture speaks 1000 words. My data doesn't have an opinion. It's impartial, but it really does show the scale of the problem because I can't see a single plastic water bottle floating on the surface. I need to have aggregations, big patches that are big enough to be seen from space. I mean think about it. We're seeing these things from space. And so what I'm seeing is the large scale, you know, the symptom of the problem often that starts on land and makes its way into the sea.

Angela Kalwaites: And how do they get into the sea, the plastics that you're looking for?

Dr Lauren Biermann: Well, so there's about 8 billion people on the planet, right? And since about the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced. Now less than 10% of that has ever been recycled. So, for every person on earth alive today, that represents about a ton of plastic that still exists in the world. And we're still producing all the time. I mean I say we, but you know, petrochemical companies are still producing plastics all the time and half of these are single use. You know, some plastics are good - they make our cars lighter, so they make our planes lighter, which makes them more fuel efficient. I'm looking at my camera, and at my my phone, and at my laptop -and these have got plastic components. But if half of the plastics we are producing a single use, then it doesn't really matter how well we try and manage it on land. Recycling is not an answer. We don't recycle plastics, we down cycle them. You can't recreate a plastic bottle from a plastic bottle. And so where do these plastics go? They're going to landfill. We're exporting them to developing countries where they get burned. So, whether it's accidental or on purpose, plastics are leaking into the ocean all of the time, in the millions of tons, unfortunately.

Angela Kalwaites: Goodness me. And just Lauren, to finish on your talk again to tell us a little bit more about it, you've already told us that you'll be literally standing on the soapbox and you won't have the sort of safety net of PowerPoints or anything like that. It's all going to be done with, I guess, props of some kind, isn't it? What? What will you have with you?

Dr Lauren Biermann: Well, I'm going to be teaching people how to identify things using satellite, how a satellite sees the world through its eyes, its instruments, using Spectra. So we're going to get volunteers to help me recreate Spectra of the different things that floats on the surface of the ocean. And even though this is really uncomfortable for me, I think it's really important because, you know, it took me a really long time to find this job. And I think that's because I grew up with no women in science around me, letting me understand that I could have that kind of job. And so, it's important for me and for my daughter to see that there are women in lab coats standing up talking about science, sort of, challenging that sort of stereotype of male scientists. And it's fine to have an idea of a male scientist in your head, but I think it doesn't need to be the default, doesn't need to be a guy with crazy hair. Who sort of looks like Einstein or, who's that doctor from Back to the Future Dr Brown?

Angela Kalwaites: Brown. Yes, that's right. Yeah.

Dr Lauren Biermann: Yeah, I love him. I'm showing my age, but it doesn't need to be the default, and so that's what I'm doing. I think it'll be really fun. And, I'm from Plymouth, I'm not from Exeter, so I'm gonna feel a bit lost. I would love to see people in the audience with a big smile waving at me. I'm really looking forward to meeting everyone.

Angela Kalwaites: Well, not. You sound like a fantastic role model for your daughter and for other young girls as well, aspiring to get into the world of science who that might have thought it may not be as accessible as they hoped. And so, this is just a brilliant idea. So just reminder of where again exactly you'll all be on Saturday?

Dr Lauren Biermann: On Saturday and I hope the weather holds. We're going to be there from 12pm – 3pm at the Piazza Terracina. So, I believe Exeter Quayside is quite big, but we're going to be at the Piazza. And don't worry if you're not sure where we are, we're going to have volunteers in black T-shirts with the purple SoapBox logo running around. Follow the people with big smiles cause we're all gonna be really excited on Saturday and we can't wait to talk to you about the work that we do.

Angela Kalwaites: Fantastic. Best of luck. I'm sure you'll be an absolute sensation, so don't worry.

Find out more about Lauren’s SoapBox science talk this weekend >>