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PhD Student spotlight: Emily Stevenson

24 October 2023

Emily Stevenson is a PhD student with PML and the University of Exeter - and has been making a splash in the media recently for her work on plastic pollution. We sat down with her to find out more about her PhD, plus the NGO ‘Beach Guardian’ she co-founded with her Dad, and to talk about using science communication to raise awareness of environmental issues - to help create real change for a healthier ocean. 
Above: Emily Stevenson on the beach wearing her Beach Guardian jacket. Beach Guardian is an environmental NGO she co-founded with her dad, Rob Stevenson. Image credit: Plymouth University 

We first asked Emily to tell us a little bit about her PhD and what it involves. 

“The title of my PhD is ‘Microplastics as vectors for antimicrobial resistance in aquatic systems’. I have just started my third year (over half way now, eek!) and my PML supervisors are Professor Pennie Lindeque and Dr Matt Cole, and I also have 2 supervisors at the University of Exeter: Dr Aimee Murray and Professor Angus Buckling.” 

“My PhD is focused on the microbial reefs that grow on microplastic particles in aquatic environments. These communities have been named ‘the Plastisphere’, and have been found to be distinct to microbial communities that are free-living in the water or sediment, or even those attached to natural debris.” 

Emily has just published her paper ‘Culturing the Plastisphere: comparing methods to isolate culturable bacteria colonising microplastics’, access it here >> 

“The concern with this that we are investigating is whether, where we have these unique communities, if microplastics act as hotspots for pathogenic or antimicrobial resistant bacteria. To do this, we are doing a mixture of lab based and environmental experiments, exploring if ‘bad’ bacteria choose to attach to microplastics over control materials, whether microplastics have a role in influencing the evolution of antimicrobial resistance and, finally, what are the wider ecological implications of this?” 

We then asked if there are certain parts of the PhD that she particularly enjoys. 

“To be honest, I absolutely love it all! I thought that I would prefer the fieldwork elements of my research, as I initially trained as a marine biologist and always loved being out in the field. But my affinity for lab work has really surprised me!” 

Above: Emily conducting research at the Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter  

Then we asked Emily to tell us about how she came to decide to pursue a PhD. 

“It’s a bit of a long story, but in a nutshell, when I finished my undergraduate, I started an NGO called Beach Guardian, which aims to tackle plastic waste by empowering communities. Through this work, I began to see that there was always going to be a group of people that I couldn’t engage with just by focusing on the environmental impacts of plastic, because not everyone cares about wildlife!” 


Above: Emily with her Beach Guardian litter picking volunteers 

“So, to get people interested from a different angle, I started looking at the human health impacts of plastics, and this is when I came across some of the first evidence which showed E. coli was present on microplastics on bathing beaches.” 

“From discovering this, I was at first concerned that I was putting my volunteers at risk on beach cleans, but was also really invested in finding out more. As a result, I came back to academia for my masters, which is when I first met Angus and Aimee - and they agreed to supervise a master's research project with me to see what was going on.” 

“Within the first few months of this work, we started to see that there was something interesting here, and we started looking at whether I could keep researching this is in more detail for a PhD. It was then that we approached Pennie and Matt at PML, and formed the awesome team that we are now, and we able to seek out funding for this project that we all designed together. I’ve been very lucky and I’m incredibly grateful for all of my supervisor’s support, and also the support of our philanthropic donors and institutions.” 

Emily has joined and strengthened a hugely successful team on the issue of plastic pollution. Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the University of Exeter have won multiple awards for their combined research on plastics - along with the University of Plymouth - including the Blue Planet Prize and the Volvo Environmental Prize.  We next asked Emily how her research fits into or complements existing research, and where she hopes to see her research progressing into the future.  

“I think what is unique about this work is that Pennie and Matt were not really exploring the Plastisphere, and Aimee and Angus were not conducting research on microplastics, so in merging all of our expertise, we’ve been able to investigate something pretty novel and from a unique approach.” 

“I hope that, in the future, we can continue growing our research expertise on this topic, but also more closely aligning with some of the other research projects at PML, including looking at organism exposure to microplastics and associated bacterial communities, and assessing the impacts on marine food webs.” 

It’s obvious that Emily is incredibly passionate and talented in both her studies and with her work with Beach Guardian, but she’s also very successful in science communication – bringing environmental issues into the public eye. Just this year, she’s featured on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, Good Morning Britain, and BBC Spotlight - to name just a few! We asked her to tell us what tips and advice do she have for scientists when it comes to communicating science, getting it out into the public and in front of people?    

Watch video: Emily speaking on Good Morning Britain on the issues of plastic pollution


“I think you have said what the most important thing is when communicating... it's passion! At Beach Guardian, we always say that we are ‘powered by passion’. I was worried when I started developing my academic career further, as I thought I might have to try and dull my passion in order to communicate in a more traditional, fact-based academic style. But, with a few changes to my approach with different audiences, I’ve received a lot of positive feedback that the passion is always far more engaging and refreshing. So, my advice would be, if you are passionate about your research, don’t hide it!” 

Whatever she’s doing, it’s working! Check out Emily’s Twitter here to see more of her science communication in action >>  

0D79D5BE-7233-4702-9DAE-9A78DCC0BAAB.JPGAbove: Emily speaking at the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy's Annual Winter Conference 

1BB6FE9F-6348-4F51-9132-0FBCF801105B.JPGAbove: Emily photographed with some litter collected on her paddleboard 

Our next question for Emily was to ask, as a female scientist, has she faced any barriers? And what advice would she give to women and girls considering a career in STEM? 

“I don’t think there is a single woman in STEM that doesn’t have a story where they have faced barriers or inequalities. Being a queer woman in STEM is also something that has presented some challenges. But, there are a lot of great people in academia now that want to see these archaic traditions eradicated, and are actively creating space, opportunities and support for anyone who wants to progress into academia that does fit the ‘usual standard’ of being a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male.” 

“My supervisory team has always supported me unequivocally, so my advice to other women and girls considering a career in STEM would be to find yourself a mentor and establish a professional working relationship built on trust and respect – find someone who can champion you to experience and pursue new opportunities.” 

Really amazing advice, thank you Emily! To finish off our chat, we wanted to get to know more about Emily - the person behind the science and environmental-initiatives, and to find out what she gets up to when away from the laboratory and PhD work. We first asked her what she enjoys about living and working in the South West. 

“I feel very fortunate because my mum is Cornish, and my family relocated from Suffolk to Cornwall when I was 10. So, I spent a considerable proportion of my childhood here, and I really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve always felt extremely lucky that my passion and my dream has always been marine science, and that I am in the perfect place to nurture that. I love being able to have a break from work and just spend time on the beach. You never have to look very far for inspiration in the Southwest!” 

IMG_9041.jpgAbove: Emily enjoying water sports on the sea, joined by a common dolphin. 

Above: Emily snorkelling with a young shark. 

A PhD involves a lot of work at the best of times, but Emily also manages Beach Guardian, participates regularly in media interviews, and seems to have plenty of extra curricular activities! [Did you know, she’s also just finished a Parliamentary Internship Programme with Green Party Peer Baroness Natalie Bennett?]. Our final question was to ask Emily what she likes to do to unwind or for self care, and how does she avoid burn out? 

“I had a bit of a tricky time developing a work-life balance when I started Beach Guardian, and even now, I often let it slip because I can be a bit of a workaholic. It was a bit of a challenge because beach cleaning and volunteering for the environment was always a hobby for me and something I did to relax, switch off and connect with my mental health. When this then became my job, I found it hard to distinguish what was work and what was pleasure, and was stuck in a very unhealthy cycle of overcommitting and then burning out.” 


Above: Emily clothed in a huge amount of lost fishing gear following a beach clean. 

“It was actually through coming back to academia that I was able to sort out my work-life balance, because it was easier for me to see what was work and what wasn’t, and I developed a better routine. So, I think that is one of the most important things to think about if you are partial to burn out: make sure you outline what is work for you and what is pleasure. If I was doing a whole week of beach cleaning or lab work, even though I enjoy it, it’s still work so I need to make space for downtime too, even if that is just slouching in front of Netflix for 24 hours!” 


Above: Emily with ghost fishing nets onboard a Stand-up Paddleboard. 

A huge thank you to the amazing Emily Stevenson for taking the time to speak to us today.  

Related information

Emily’s new paper: ‘Culturing the Plastisphere: comparing methods to isolate culturable bacteria colonising microplastics’ 

Beach Guardian website 

Emily Stevenson: Sharing antimicrobial expertise with Parliament 

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