Protecting our Community’s Vulnerable Coastal Ecosystems: Student Kayla O’Brien Makes an Impact with Microplastics Research

Barrier islands serve as the buffer habitat between Florida’s wetlands, reefs, and other marine environments. Sadly, microplastic pollution is now present in most estuarine mangrove and beach systems and is threatening these central ecologies.

Kayla O’Brien, an environmental science graduate student in Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, is studying the patterns of microplastic pollution in the surrounding wetland and marine environments, so these critical ecosystems can be better protected.

Her project, “Microplastics in Mangrove and Beach Sediments on Southeast Florida Barrier Islands,” aims to quantify the abundance and variation of microplastics in mangrove and beach sediments on southeast Florida barrier islands. These habitats are important to study because they provide many essential ecosystem services, support a diverse array of species, and are recreationally and economically valuable.

“These are vulnerable and important coastal ecosystems,” stated Kayla. “The distribution, abundance and hazards that microplastics present to the environment are not fully understood, but it is widely recognized that this is much-needed data to support greater efforts to protect and enhance these extremely valuable systems.”

Kayla’s research will provide coastal managers with a better understanding of the current microplastic pollution and geomorphic conditions, which will allow them to create stronger conservation practices for these crucial coastal regions.

Kayla is one of four Schmidt College of Science students who are recipients of 2022-23 funding support from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). The students’ projects were each awarded $1,000 by the NPCA, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the park system for present and future generations.

“This NPCA-FAU partnership highlights the importance of the research being conducted at FAU and the societally relevant, real- world implications for the environment and park conservation efforts,” said Tiffany Roberts Briggs, Ph.D., Kayla’s faculty advisor, director of the Environmental Science Program in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and associate professor in the Department of Geosciences.

As a result of the additional funding, Kayla is presenting the results of her novel study at the Young Coastal Scientists and Engineers Conference, Lake Worth Lagoon Science Symposium, American Shore and Beach Preservation Association’s National Coastal Conference, and FAU’s Environmental Science Retreat.

“Conservation efforts must consider the distribution and potential hazards of microplastics within various environments to best mitigate and reduce plastic pollution,” explained Kayla. “Gaining a better understanding on the current microplastic conditions along southeast Florida’s barrier islands is imperative for conserving and managing the health of these vital coastal systems.”

To learn more about how Florida Atlantic University’s Transcend Tomorrow: The Campaign for Florida Atlantic University is supporting student scientists like Kayla and working to conserve and manage the health of our endangered waterways, visit

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