When Zoie Diana wrote a short essay on plastic pollution that won her an undergraduate scholarship, she didn’t expect it would help set her on an academic path that would include feeding plastic pellets to anemones on TV.
Diana always had an underlying interest in environmental issues but decided she wanted to study the topic more during her undergraduate studies at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. At the time, the college offered one environmental studies class that centered around marine environmental studies. After taking the course, Diana decided to study abroad in Australia to take more marine environmental studies courses and see the Great Barrier Reef.
After Australia, she was set on continuing to study marine environmental studies. She earned a master’s degree at Duke in coastal environmental management and then worked for a few years for federal agencies as an environmental consultant. During that time, she worked on ensuring federal entities’ compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and federal sustainability acts.
Diana, however, wanted to be back in a role that allowed her to continue to research all of the things in marine environmental studies that she was interested in.
“Although I enjoyed this time applying my knowledge of the environment, I missed research,” she said. “As such, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. merging my background and interests in pollution management, environmental policy, and marine science—focusing on plastic pollution.”
Diana, now a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate back at Duke, is pursuing her dissertation in the Rittschof Lab in the Marine Science and Conservation Department at the Nicholas School of the Environment.
“Broadly, my dissertation explores multisector mitigation of plastic pollution, approaches from biology, policy, law, and industry,” she said. “My overarching goal is to identify governance gaps and mismatches in plastic pollution management.”
Diana’s research focuses on how various stakeholders (governments, businesses, and scientists) mitigate plastic pollution. Currently, measures to reduce plastic pollution aren’t keeping pace with plastic waste generation and pollution in the environment. By identifying the gaps in approaches to marine plastic pollution prevention, Diana’s research aims to provide insights about better practices in management that could have a lasting effect on marine plastic waste.
Raising Community Awareness
During her time as a Ph.D. student, Diana has become involved with the community around her field of research and beyond, from serving as a representative of the Marine Science and Conservation department in the Graduate and Professional Student Government to being a team leader for the Bass Connections team on Empowering Youth Civic Action on Plastic Pollution.
She—along with faculty members Meagan Dunphy-Daly, John Virdin, Michelle Nowlin, and Jason Somarelli—also helped to create the Plastic Pollution Working Group, which consists of faculty and graduate students across at least 10 disciplines of study on campus.
“It has been extremely rewarding to bring together these differing disciplinary backgrounds around this common issue,” Diana said.
In addition to her research and involvement during her time in graduate school, Diana has been named a recipient of The Graduate School’s Bass Instructional Fellowship, which allowed her to teach a course this spring—Marine Plastic Pollution: Problems and Solutions.
“This is an undergraduate course focused on the environmental health and conservation issues posed by plastic pollution, with a focus on the toxicological risks faced by marine animals that consume plastic by actively conducting research on plastic consumption by sea anemones, a model animal for corals,” Diana said. “We will also survey government and private sector responses to plastic pollution, and students will critically evaluate proposed solutions.”
Sharing Her Research
Reflecting on her research experience, Diana said that some of her favorite and most gratifying moments have come from opportunities to share the research that she and her colleagues are doing with new audiences in different venues.
During the pandemic, Diana had the chance to co-present a study funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts with Rachel Karasik, a policy associate at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, for the United Nations Environment Programme. During their webinar, Diana and Karasik shared the results of a study that centered around two decades of government responses to plastic pollution and the Plastics Policy Inventory, a database of public policy documents on plastic pollution.
“I was thrilled to be sharing our findings in this venue and that UNEP found our results helpful and relevant for the community of practice,” Diana said.
She also appeared on UNC-TV to share how biologists approach the issue of plastic pollution, a focus in Diana’s research.
“My advisor and I discussed plastic consumption in marine animals on UNC-TV, and I even got to feed an anemone a plastic pellet on television!” Diana said. “This was a really rewarding opportunity to share our reach with a broader audience.”