To those who have come across it while voyaging across the planet’s largest ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an unforgettable sight. The floating mass of refuse—created by decades of pollution and collected by Pacific currents—is a jarring contrast to the lush abundance of interconnected life that is the earth’s seas. But a related oceanic hazard, discovered by Brian Kim ’18, proved that environmental problems don’t need to be visible to be a threat.
Kim’s discovery came through his work during Jan Plan at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, a Colby partner. The previous fall, as his Bigelow Changing Oceans Semester program was coming to an end, Kim had lingered in the lab, wanting to continue his studies.
With the guidance and collaboration of Bigelow staff members, during Jan Plan Kim was able to conduct more research, which centered on plankton that consumes plastic trash fragments. In the laboratory, Kim came to a conclusion with global implications: when plastic trash breaks down to particles small enough to be devoured by plankton, the plastic comes out in their feces. That byproduct—unlike the algae that plankton normally consume—negatively affects the ocean’s ability to be an integral part of the earth’s atmospheric cycle by reducing its capacity to sequester carbon dioxide.
The work was so groundbreaking that Kim presented his research at the national summer meeting of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography in Santa Fe the following June.
Allowing our students to engage their intellectual curiosity is at the heart of Colby’s academic mission. That Kim used his Colby Jan Plan to not only scratch an inquisitive itch but to make a discovery with global impact embodies the drive for knowledge that can enrich us all.