Where Are They Now? Former Intern, Margaret Stack.

Margaret Stack

She’s Making A Difference Researching Environmental Contaminants

Margaret Stack, or Maggie, is a former Shaw Institute intern and research assistant currently working as a research scientist at San Diego State University. Her work focuses on understanding the availability and impacts of contaminants in the environment, particularly in wildlife and microplastics. Outside of her research, she loves to trail run, bake sweet treats, and look for whales along the California coast.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Maggie received a BS degree in biology from Boston College in 2015 and an MS in Environmental Health from San Diego State University in 2020. She has worked with multiple wildlife research teams, including the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and the Hawaii VINE Project on Oahu, where she assisted with field and laboratory studies on mussels, walruses, and a variety of bird species. We were delighted to recently catch up with Maggie and find out how her time as a Shaw Institute intern helped shape her career.

Tell us about your internship at the Shaw Institute.

I interned at the Shaw Institute in the summer of 2017, and then stayed as a research assistant until August 2018. At the time, I was in between undergraduate and graduate school. I was focusing on finding positions that gave me experience and knowledge about different facets of environmental science so that I could determine what I wanted to study in graduate school. The Shaw Institute provided me with a lot of hands-on experience studying microplastics, but it also gave me the opportunity to develop my own research project. This was an important experience in developing my skills as a scientist, and that experience gave me a leg up in my graduate program.

My focus as an intern was to help understand how mussels filter microplastic fibers. My lab work included dissecting the mussels and investigating the microplastic loads in their gills, digestive tract, and other organs. I spent a lot of time on a microscope counting microfibers! I also assisted with field sampling for microplastics, where we would take out the Institute’s research boat to various sites and collect water samples to quantify microplastics loads. Boat days were the best – even though they were long, we had opportunities to spot porpoises and seals.

What were you involved in as a research assistant at the Shaw Institute?

While a research assistant, I was able to help with four new interns for the summer of 2018, one of whom was my younger sister Mary. Mary also returned to the Institute after her internship and helped train new interns, completed an independent project, and assisted the research team with other special projects. Mary and I think back so fondly on our experience together at the Institute. We used to joke that if it ever closed, we’d come back to Blue Hill and run it ourselves!”

I also developed a project with Shaw Institute Research Coordinator Madelyn Woods, and Dr. Russell Fielding from the University of the South, to examine cetacean kidney and livers for microplastics. We particularly wanted to determine if microplastics could translocate from the bloodstream into organs.Everyone at the Institute was so helpful in a variety of ways: approachable and willing to help interns in their professional or personal lives, always available to listen and chat about projects and life, providing a wealth of scientific knowledge and experience, and patiently and critically discussing research.

Margaret Stack
Margaret Stack busy doing lab work at San Diego State University.

How did your internship and work as a research assistant at the Shaw Institute help you?

The Shaw Institute prepared me for graduate school. Having the opportunity to design a research project, assist with data analysis, and observe the manuscript publication process helped me understand the workflow and requirements to successfully implement a research project. We also had the opportunity to present our research to the Blue Hill community, which gave us wonderful experience in sharing research and connecting with interested parties.

Would you recommend the intern program at the Institute to others?

I would wholeheartedly recommend the Shaw Institute to anyone who is interested in microplastics, ocean science, or environmental science. The staff there were always so welcoming and supportive, and they were always willing to help interns learn and succeed. Even outside the research, staff and interns would gather for dinners or events, which created a really warm environment.

What is your current occupation and what have you done professionally or academically since your internship?

I am still in the environmental field, and I still work in part with microplastics. I graduated from San Diego State University (SDSU) with a master’s in 2020, and I have remained at SDSU as a research scientist with Dr. Eunha Hoh and Dr. Nathan Dodder. My research focus is on chemical analysis of environmental samples, ranging from contaminants in marine mammals, to monitoring estrogens in endangered rhinos, and understanding what types of chemicals leach from microplastics. I mostly use nontargeted chemical analysis with two-dimensional gas chromatography coupled with time-of-flight mass spectrometry. This work always feels somewhat magical to me, because we can detect all sorts of known and unknown compounds in really small volumes of samples. We recently investigated the chemicals that leach from tire wear particles and microfibers, and we found a lot! We hope that this work will help to inform policy and help keep the environment a cleaner, safer place for humans and wildlife.

In May 2020, I was awarded the Hanlon Award from the School of Public Health, which is given to the most outstanding graduate student in our school for their academic and professional achievements, as well as service to the school. I was honored to receive this award, and I think it was possible because of the confidence that was instilled in me while at the Shaw Institute! I also received several awards for research presentations, including a 1st Place award at the 33rd California State University Research Competition, which I again attribute to learning the skills of public speaking while at Shaw.”

Have you kept up with the Shaw Institute? Are you aware of the work that it is undertaking today?

I have kept tabs on the Shaw Institute, and it has been really exciting to see the changes and growth it has experienced in the past few years. The new spectrometer will open so many doors for microplastics analysis (and we can always discuss collaboration, if that’s of interest ).

Any last thoughts?

I really do think the Shaw Institute played an integral role in my development as a scientist. While an intern and research assistant at Shaw, I was encouraged to be curious, to pursue questions, and to think critically about how to answer those questions. I will always cherish my time at Shaw and in the beautiful community of Blue Hill!