Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 43 - Madie Steer - RACE AGAINST PLASTIC - Part 2 of 3

We, the county championships, which is another big, it’s county big, the whole of the UK still again in Newquay. And the first year we were together as our crew, we won it by 18 boat lengths. So, after one minute 40 we were ahead.
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 43 - Madie Steer - RACE AGAINST PLASTIC - Part 2 of 3

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MADIE: We, the county championships, which is another big, it’s county big, the whole of the UK still again in Newquay. And the first year we were together as our crew, we won it by 18 boat lengths. So, after one minute 40 we were ahead. And like, it wasn't really a race. It was such an anticlimax. So, six months worth of training. I mean, that sounds really like, obviously the other crews are really good as well. But we were yeah, you want a race, that's what you’re there for, you want the competition. So, yeah, but the amount of training that is needed for an amateur sport like, I mean, we don't even have access to physiotherapists, nutritionists, nothing. It costs a fortune to keep yourself going with work, with family life. We, traditionally the club's not very good at thinking about anything other than on the water and on the rowing machine. So, we start doing weights together, strength and conditioning, but we pay for all of that ourselves. And then diet and nutrition, we soon realized we can't sustain that level of training without actually thinking about what we're eating. And it's really quite a rural area down here and there're a couple of farmer's wives and daughters that are in the crew. And trying to get them to sort of think about their diet when everyone's so busy and yeah, that's what we eat. Like, I'm not doing anything different and I need cake while I'm whatever and-- JESSE: Everybody needs cake. MADIE: Yeah, we do. We do, but not every day and not just before training. So, yeah, so we started getting a lot more advice and it definitely helped especially on race day. Controlling on nutrition on race day sort of realized it was a nice learning curve for us all to go through together. So, yeah, they think the whole club thinks about it a lot more now and sort of sports massage and we've got a good physio that we can go and use because it is quite demanding on your body really like training every day with work and stuff. So, yeah, it's a very repetitive movement. So, it's not impact, it's not like running. You don't get those kind of injuries but I suffer with tendonitis quite often, so just from repetitive ?? 02:48> and that's a tricky one to control really. But it's all part of the fun really that is some-- Yeah, I love it. It's another good distraction from everything else and go and have a row in the river after work. And you just forget about everything else and you get in the zone. JESSE: How's like the culture of the sport? So, the reason I asked this is that Episode 40 with Evan Pardi, which as we're talking is not out yet but will be by the time your episode’s out. He is now a pro offroad triathlete, but like he grew up rowing. And he talks about he talked about like, he's used to this very like, gentlemanly culture of the sport not like you know, this kind of I’ll say almost brutish like American sport culture that's like trash-talking everybody. It's more like, you race and then everybody’s still friends after like before and afterwards there's no like hard feeling. So, like is the culture the same in gig rowing or what have you experienced? MADIE: Yeah, so the history of the sport means there's a lot of tradition with it. So, unfortunately, it’s actually kind of dying out a little bit which is a real shame because-- So, like singing, going to the pub and singing sea shanty is a huge thing because it goes part and parcel with those crews what they used to do historically and it's a real Cornish thing, you know, sea shanty. So, there's quite a lot of singing with it on the social scene, but it's not the rowing like then sort of Cambridge Oxford in the UK river rowing. I've had a go that and they are way too straight-laced ?? 04:57>. They think it's absolutely amazing rowing on flat water in a straight line and I'm like mmm, need waves, need waves. Like it's too two dimensional on a river. But the politeness about it like I mean I think is a bit of a British thing as well because like rugby is our equivalent of like you know your American football and stuff. And rugby players are you know very polite to each other afterwards, very respectful of competition. So, I think in the UK generally you just don't get that kind of vibe with it. I mean, we say we know everybody on ?? 05:44> some people have friends ?? 05:49> grown up rowing together on the circuit, but then the rest of us you know, we just if I'm down in Penzance for work, I might message one of them ?? 06:00> okay for coffee or something. So, we see each other outside of roaring and when we're on the beach we chat, catch up, but we do not talk about training, we do not talk about what we're doing in the boat. And when we get in the boat, they are absolute worst enemies. JESSE: ?? 06:19> MADIE: And ?? 06:21> as well, like when Falmouth first came back, they've got a varnish boat, and they're all quite big girls, they wear black. So, they just practiced their start before the start and they just rowed straight after us and then braked, turned around and went off and they just tried to intimidate us. That didn't work. We won. So, yeah, it's kind of like a bit of mind games, but yeah, on the beach we’re all chatty. I mean in the major championships you do avoid each other. You don't really go, you don't go and speak to each other too much at the major championships because there's just so much like any sport at any level, you've put so much effort in, you just don't-- you want to be in your own zone ?? 07:13> a team sport more so than I used to play field hockey, English field hockey at university and - team of 11. And that's a team sport, there's nothing like rowing because you know, you have to be mirror images of each other, you have to be identical. You have to be doing the same thing all the time. So, you just end up so close and you just don't want other people. I mean, even in our own club because the club's quite big, we've got quite a few teams, but we have to just sort of remove ourselves from you know, everybody else's racing and concentrate on our own preparations and stuff. So, yeah. JESSE: So, I want to give plenty of time because I'm sure that there's a lot you can talk about. I want to talk about your research. Because obviously, it seems pretty impactful to kind of how I’ll say humanity exists right now. You're doing research into litter in marine ecosystems. Is that correct? MADIE: Yeah. So, I specialize in the smaller plastic marine litter, so we call it microplastics. So, anything, specifically anything less than five millimeters, but actually mostly the stuff that you can't see. So yeah, tricky. It's not the easiest subject there is. But yeah, so Plymouth, in the UK, my supervisor for my PhD, Richard, he’s called Richard Thompson. He's kind of renowned in the field of research. He wrote a paper in 2004 and he was the first person to use the term microplastics. He kind of coined the phrase. And then he's been involved with an awful lot of research since then. Then we've got a fairly good team now here at Plymouth, some new lab facilities we've just built. So, yeah, Plymouth as a whole, there's a couple of marine institutes here that deal with microplastics and marine litter, and it's quite a hub for it really worldwide. Yeah, we've been doing it for quite a few years down here, and we've had some really good impactful papers in the field. So, yeah, I mean, so I started five years ago with microplastics when I came back to do my masters. So, I graduated in marine biology in 2004, I tried to get some work, but everybody wanted two years experience and I couldn't afford to volunteer for two years and not get paid. So, I sort of fell out of it really. Got a job, and then set up my business doing something very random, designed and then got manufactured hand-painted picture tiles, and got them made in China and then ship them over here and sold them wholesale and online as well. So, I did that for a couple of years. Built the business up and then sold it in 2015 to come back and do my masters. I always knew I wanted to come back into marine science, but you have to be prepared to work for free for a bit really before you can, academia is a bit of a tough one to get into. So, yes, I did my masters and updated my knowledge of microplastics because it wasn't around when I did my degree. I've just stayed in the field really because Plymouth is so good at it. So, we've just got world-leading researchers here. So, it's kind of stupid to move away from it at the moment here. But my master's project was looking at ingestion in wild fish larvae. So, I wanted to see if a fish larvae out of Plymouth had any ingestion, any signs of ingestion of microplastics and they did, a small percentage. And then after my master's, I went on a research cruise for PML, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and I went from the UK down to Antarctica on a ship measuring microplastics in the water, and also in zooplankton, so the small, like animals in the sea, bottom of the food chain to see if they had an ingestion of microplastics as well. So, did that for a couple of years, kind of a bit paid, a bit not, and then got my PhD 18 months ago, which is already-- So, PhDs in the UK work where the academic will get funding for a project and then they get a student in to do that project. So, you have a brief that you're supposed to follow as ?? 12:22> you can, but obviously, like the student’s gonna want to do the work. So, you can change it a little bit and make it your own project. But yeah, so I've done microplastics for about five years. JESSE: So, when you're measuring microplastics, is a predominant amount of research looking at, like the impact on wildlife or is it just saying let's go take like samples in this particular area versus that particular area and then trying to measure the concentration of them. Or is there any, I guess large push in a particular area or is it kind of scattered? MADIE: Yeah, it's pretty scattered, to be honest. So, institutes tend to sort of specialize in different areas. But there's been a lot of research sort of stating where microplastics and also larger plastics are in the environment, and what animals have ingested it. But we're kind of I feel like now we're kind of at the stage where we know, unfortunately, that plastics are just about everywhere. And most animals will ingest them if they're susceptible to ingesting them. So, it depends on their feeding strategy, or depends on where they are if they're in an area of high concentration of plastics. And of course, it's easy to mistake a piece of plastic for food. But the other major part of the research has been trying to determine what level of harm that will actually inflict on individuals and on populations and ecosystems, which is really tricky. So, that's done experimentally, you can't do that in the wild. So, ecotoxic experiments mainly in labs. But the trouble is trying to reflect exactly what's going on in the environment, it's very difficult. So, if you're going to feed an organism microplastics, you need to make the microplastics or buy them in and most people buy them in. So, they're virgin plastics out of a packet, which is not like the plastics that they're experiencing in the environment that have been for potentially years, and have all the associated contaminants from the water but also a biofilm of algae and bacteria and possibly viruses. So, this sort of really sort of trying to find out the actual level of harm, it's very difficult. So, most ecotoxic experiments will use doses that are increasing up until a point where they will inflict you’ll see the harmful level. But these levels of plastics don't exist in many places, thankfully, we don't think. So, then they're just not very realistic at the moment. And you want to age the plastics as well. So, maybe try and put them out in the sea for a bit and then back and then feed them to an organism but that's difficult as well. So, yeah, we’re still in sort of fairly early stages with knowing exactly what level of harm an individual level, and then we ?? 15:45> are now able to help ecologists scale up results to look at whether there’s going to be an effect on a population of ?? 15:58> ecosystems. And specifically, in the UK, we're looking at - ecosystem services approach quite a lot now. So, if you want to sort of legislate against any of this sort of government here really wants to see the value of the damage of plastics, so we need to put a price on everything. So, ?? 16:22> system services are really important. So, for instance, if wastewater is quite harmful with, got a lot of plastics in it, and is going out into an estuary where there's fish farms or shellfish farms, and those sea mussels are ingesting plastics, and it's harming them and the higher mortality rate in the mussel farm, then the actual physical monetary cost of that. So, there's a lot of work going on with that. And then also the sources of plastics because we still aren’t particularly sure where exactly they're coming from and at what levels. And there's a split between ?? 17:07> macroplastics, you have the potential to trace those a little bit easier because they might be a whole, still intact plastic product that's recognizable to us. But microplastics are usually fragmented, that's larger plastic or, and we find an awful lot of fibers in a natural environment. That's my main work. So, when we wash our clothing, that’s synthetics especially for people that do a lot of sport and wear a lot of synthetic clothing, and all of the fibers shed a lot of fiber shed during the process of washing and that goes through into wastewater. And although wastewater treatment’s very good at removing particulates because that's what it's designed to do, the sheer volume of water that's going through wastewater treatment means that there's still millions of particles going out into marine environment for us, because obviously the UK is an island. So, most of our ?? 18:07> goes into - especially in the southwest. And so yeah, it's a really, really complicated research area because also like, in the UK people are already jumping to wanting to know what the solutions are. It's great that there's a lot of media interest with it now. It's really, really good. But the problem is that we don't really have the answers that people are asking the questions to. So, we still need an awful lot of research to know really what we can do to minimize impact and what we can do to minimize the amount of plastics going into the ocean in the first place. JESSE: Yes. You said people are already asking the questions. That's exactly where my head is. It's like, okay, I think we can recognize that this is a problem. But then you said like the government wants to put a price tag on it and say, well, what's the dollar cost of this or pound cost of this problem? And then does the amount that it costs to fix it, is it worth what-- It's like-- Okay, but yeah, my head goes to like there's the ocean cleanup project that’s trying to work on removing macro plastics. And I love your opinion on that. I've heard kind of back and forth whether people think it's worthwhile or not. But yeah, microplastics obviously being a much more troublesome thing just because how do you sieve and filter the ocean of the planet you know, like down to it's such a small degree? MADIE: Well, I mean they go smaller as well because we will see started research now on nano plastic. But they're, at the moment, there's no way of analytically detecting them. So, you can't-- it's not easy to find it. You can't visualize particle very easily and you can't detect chemically that it's there either if it's that small. So that's a huge problem, the problem with plastic is it's durable, even in it's micro nano phase, it's still there and it’s still potentially harmful to an appropriately sized organism. So, I mean, in our view, within the science community here in Plymouth, we kind of feel like we need to stop the tap of plastics rather than be cleaning it up in the ocean. Like it's not really the answer to say it's okay, we'll clear it up. So, ?? 20:58> clean up it’s a good sort of thing for media to grab hold of. But my personal opinion is that really should have been set up outside of harbors. I mean, it's not really that practical because of shipping. But we need to stop it going out into the ocean in the first place, and the cost of going out and actually collecting the rubbish that they're collecting is huge. It's a long way out into the ocean. So, in theory, it's a good idea, but actually those things need to be in marinas and outside of effluent sites. And it would be nice to have that amount of money invested in washing machines with filters, and fabric, weave technology and trying to stop fiber shedding and trying to develop more renewable fibers like bamboo. Yeah. So, I mean, a lot of it is very high profile. So, it's good that it's getting a message out that there's a problem. JESSE: Yeah, well, it's actually something, it's good to talk to you because it's something I think about as the owner of a company that produces skincare products. I often end up using plastic bottles or like plastic deodorant type tubes. And I look for can I find like a paper equivalent or something that's biodegradable. And it's like there are people working on it, to make something that's equivalent to the durability of plastic in terms of product transportation, that kind of thing. But the few things that are available are so expensive comparatively that like economically, I can't use it. But at the same time, I'm like, it's also like, you can't not use it too because then you're making this negative impact on the environment. So, it's like I definitely on a personal level struggle with that as a company that produces products that uses plastics. And I think about how pervasive plastics are, in just at least the American economy in general, where it's like, you go to the store, you want to get anything, it's probably in a plastic package. One time use plastic package. It's very tough to get anything that's not, and even like-- So, as a hobby of mine, I make small-batch ice cream, and I buy cream from the local dairy which comes in glass bottles. So, they were using glass bottles but it has a plastic cap. Go to Part 1 Go to Part 3

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