One-of-a-kind: Connecting to Labrador roots while helping lead critical marine research

Feb 14th, 2019

By Jeff Green

Natasha Healey. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp
One-of-a-kind: Connecting to Labrador roots while helping lead critical marine research

It’s an opportunity most undergrads never get.

Little wonder, then, that Natasha Healey jumped at the chance to help run one of Memorial’s most progressive science labs – one of only two in Canada and one of four such facilities in North America.

The third-year undergraduate geography and earth sciences student in the bachelor of science program manages the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution.

As manager, she says she organizes lab meeting times, does upkeep of the lab and manages members’ hours.

“In terms of technician work, I cut open the digestive tract of marine animals and go through water trawls in an effort to look for microplastics,” Ms. Healey told the Gazette during a visit to the facility, tucked away in a corner of the first floor of the Science building on the St. John’s campus.

“We do this by putting the contents of the digestive tract and the water trawls through three different-sized sieves. Then, we pick out what we think could be plastics, dry what we find in coffee filters for a minimum of five days and then we look at the contents of the coffee filters under a microscope to determine if they are in fact plastics.”

Labrador roots

The research, Ms. Healey says, is unique and keeps her connected to her family’s roots.

Originally from Forteau, Labrador, and currently living in Paradise, N.L., Ms. Healey is a non-resident member of NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC).

Her position was created through a partnership between NCC and the lab’s director, Dr. Max Liboiron, associate vice-president (Indigenous research) pro tempore. Through that collaboration, students from NCC get to process samples from their land.

“For me, not living in Labrador anymore, processing these samples is a very unique way to connect with the land my family is from,” said Ms. Healey.

“I also get the opportunity to go to NunatuKavut and present our findings in a community meeting,” she added. “I think this is very unique as not many undergraduate students get the opportunity to help guide a community meeting.”

Critical research

Since so many people eat wild country food, Ms. Healey says marine microplastic research is critical.

“Plastics are great absorbers of oily chemicals, chemicals that people should not be ingesting,” she said.

“When animals ingest microplastics, these oily chemicals can get absorbed into their tissue and can then be ingested by people. Knowing the ingestion rate of microplastics in marine animals is so important, as some people depend on wild/country food all year round. For example, my family in Labrador eats wild food like cod, char, duck and other seabirds four or five times a week.”

With the new knowledge and experiences she’s gained from working in CLEAR, Ms. Healey says she is eager to continue her studies and has her sights set on graduate school.

“After my undergrad, I hope to do a graduate studies program where I can continue to do marine microplastic research.”

Jeff Green is a senior communications advisor with the Office of the Vice-President (Research). He can be reached at