Maddie Clough

GRADUATE STUDENT – 3rd Year Materials Chemistry PhD

I’m now a third year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry. I grew up in rural Mid Michigan, so actually not too far from U of M, but I ended up going to Central Michigan University for my undergrad. There, I studied chemistry and I was working in a synthetic chemistry lab for drug development. And it was really interesting to do some synthetic work, but I realized, in wanting to go to grad school, that I wanted to pivot my focus. And so when I came to U of M, I was able to meet with Professor Anne McNeil and she gave me a lot of insight into different projects I could do with the skills that I had, and [with] transitioning interests. So it was a happy coincidence that I landed in the lab at a time when there was funding for this project for atmospheric microplastic quantification. Totally different than anything I thought I would ever do, but I’ve learned so many skills. And really, I wasn’t really thinking of sustainability before I came to U of M so it was interesting to work with Anne who’s [been] piloting sustainability in the chemistry department and learning about microplastics. 

[In this lab,] I think the best days are sampling days. That’s when I get to go to the schools that we partner with and I’ll either collect a sample, or I’ll swap out different substrates that we collect these particles from the air onto. That’s why [the field work] is fun to do– I like to get out of the lab and see the impact and see the region that I’m analyzing. But most of the day to day work is in the lab and that’s where I’ll use some instruments to analyze the identity of all these particles in the atmosphere. Specifically, I’m looking for plastic origin. So I have techniques that I can use to understand the chemical identity of all the particles.

A lot of our work is really targeted on informing future regulation and future remediation. What’s known about microplastics in the atmosphere is that they are inhalable. So [determining] the health impacts of that [and]knowing how many microplastics we’re exposed to and could be breathing is really important. There’s not a lot of data for microplastic quantification in the US at all, [and] there’s only two regions that have really been researched at all, [one of which] was in a protected national park, so it’s really not even representative of what we could see in a more industrialized region. So in Michigan, we have [our] pilot program going on right now [and] from our four pilot locations, we want to expand to all regions of Michigan, [all] 81 counties in Michigan. We [also] want to develop some curriculum for students about microplastic contamination. And then we really just want to see like, on the science aspect,  how are microplastics moving through the state? How are their sources different from region to region? And how does that influence the exposure that people have to microplastics in industrial or rural areas?

I feel like there was a point in undergrad that informed me that I wanted to transition away from the [synthetic chemistry] work I was doing in that lab and move towards something more sustainable. It [feels] kind of unrelated but I went on this biological class experience at the Biological Station that Central Michigan has on Beaver Island. It’s this really remote destination. I went just for field biology, and really, we weren’t doing anything [particularly] sustainable or climate minded, catching snakes and, you know, all sorts of random bio things. But I remember at the Biological Station, they would do a lot of ecological work and they were looking at the Great Lakes temperature changes, and they had a chart of Lake Michigan where they were looking at all of the temperature data from like the last 50 years or so. They also had the species that were impacted, [noting] what the best temperature level of the water would be for like all these things. They [were] mostly looking at mollusks and things like that. Yeah, it was completely aside from the class, but looking at that data and really being in my home state where I saw these changes, in the data, [and] right in front of me. You couldn’t deny that that was happening. I think that might be the tipping point where I was thinking, okay, I want to go to grad school, but I think I want to transition to something that maybe has more of an environmental impact. I stumbled upon this research being presented at the bio station, like mid-snake expedition [and] it was really good to open my eyes to that work.

[Similar to that], one of our goals with this grant and the funding that we have from LSA is to develop some curriculum for teachers to use alongside the data that we give them back to [help] students understand microplastic contamination and get involved with some graduate level work. So one of the things I’m really looking forward to is, once we’ve quantified these microplastics in the regions, I’ll actually send that data back to the teacher that we’ve partnered with and they can use that in their classroom. And with our school visits, we allow them to have access to the materials that we use so eventually, when we’re expanding to like all these 80 counties or so, we’d like to put together some like kits with the slideshows. We’ll do some different hands-on activities with the students. [They’ll have] all of the supplies that they would need, where they can kind of bring microplastic learning at the graduate level, to the classroom.

And [right now], part of my work with the fieldwork is that I’ll sometimes go to classrooms and educate kids on microplastic contamination. So it’s not super climate focused, but my hope from doing this is that I see how much interest there is in sustainability. Like, I’ve gone to classrooms of high schoolers, and I’ve gone to classrooms of third or fourth graders, and the interest is kind of the same. There’s a lot of interest in how people can adopt more sustainable practices, [how they can understand] the current condition of climate change, and [think about] what can be done now. I think it’s just hopeful to see that the younger generation is very interested in learning more about this. And I think they’re very amenable to doing that now.

As part of the LSA Year of Sustainability, LSA Dean’s Fellow Cherish Dean sat down with a range of students, staff, and faculty across the University to illustrate the various relationships people across campus already have to this work, to showcase ways people can get involved, and to highlight the reasons that this work should matter.

To view an abbreviated transcript of Cherish’s full conversation with Maddie, click here.

Cherish can be reached at To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team as a whole, please contact . 

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