Studying plastic pollution energized Sherri Mason and set her career in a new direction.
"I was an atmospheric chemist by training. And that's what I spent the first decade or so of my career doing," Mason said in a telephone interview.
That changed when she participated in a July 2012 environmental survey of the Great Lakes.
"It was supposed to be kind of a fun side project," Mason said. "I was still an atmospheric chemist until we brought in our first trawl. And, you know, I looked into the 'caught' end, where everything collects from the Manta net. And I swear, perfectly perched, right in the middle, was a little ball of Styrofoam. And I was like, 'This is what I want to do.'
"I discovered over those three weeks of that first voyage that I had a passion for this area of research that I had never experienced before. I couldn't sleep at night because I was so overwhelmed with questions and ideas for projects that we could do in this area of study. So I decided by the end of that voyage that I was going to completely change research directions."
Her research from that trip ended up making a huge splash. The study found that plastic pollutants circulate in pockets of the Great Lakes at concentrations higher than any other body of water on Earth. Given the importance of the Great Lakes to the region, her work was cited by hundreds of newspapers, radio stations and television news programs.