Preventing the Plastic Pandemic with Madeline Fryer
May 18, 2023
In this episode of “On Par,” LSU graduating senior Madeline Fryer speaks with President William F. Tate IV about saving the environment from single-use plastics. Fryer, a Louisiana native, became interested in her home state’s environment with her family and spending time outdoors with them. Her interest grew into her passion while a student at LSU, studying coastal environmental science. Fryer is interested in aquatic pollution and is using drones to research and document litter and plastic in Bayou Fountain watershed, which covers the southern portion of East Baton Rouge parish and includes part of LSU’s campus. She hopes to become a pilot one day to aid her environmental research. After graduation, Madeline will continue her work in a PhD program focused on the “plastic pandemic.”
[00:00:00] President William F. Tate IV: Welcome to "On Par with the President" podcast. Today I'm joined by LSU Senior Ogden Honors College student, Madeline Fryer. Fryer, who's a Louisiana native, is studying coastal environmental science. We're gonna tee it off. How are you doing today?
[00:00:18] Madeline Fryer: I'm doing great. How are you?
[00:00:19] President William F. Tate IV: I'm excellent. This is exciting. Thank you for joining us.
[00:00:22] Madeline Fryer: Thank you for having me.
[00:00:24] President William F. Tate IV: So growing up in New Orleans, what was your relationship to the coast and the environment?
[00:00:28] Madeline Fryer: I mean, the coast and environment have been integral to every part of my growth as an individual, uh, education, upbringing. My parents were avid outdoors people, so as a kid, if it was outside, I was doing it, camping, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, catching tad poles, playing with insects. I was always outside, and so that fostered a real sense of love and appreciation and respect for the environment. But it's also been a really important part of my education. Growing up in New Orleans, I went to public schools there. And I was very fortunate we did a lot of science activities and my teachers always integrated coast and environment into those studies.
[00:01:07] For instance, I remember in elementary school we did this little project and it was after the oil spill in the Gulf, and it was trying to clean up oil. And they just had this little pan, and they filled it with water and then they poured some vegetable oil in, and they gave us different soaps and pipe cleaners and pom-poms and cotton balls. And they told us to try and clean up as much of the oil as we could before it got to this end of the basin. And so, you know, you would float straws on the water to be booms or use the dish soap, which would be a chemical dispersant. And so I, I've always had coastal experiences as part of my education, and so it's just been a really important part of my growth as an individual.
[00:01:45] President William F. Tate IV: So you had those wonderful early experiences, but what made you decide to study the coast and environmental science as a LSU student?
[00:01:55] Madeline Fryer: You know, I actually started at LSU as a pre-med and nutrition major. And I was in the Honors College and we take HNRS classes, and I was looking at the list and one of them was on marine phytoplankton and I thought, "I know nothing about that, but it sounds fascinating." So I signed up for that class and it was in the College of the Coast and Environment. I loved it so much. I was always staying after class, asking the professor questions, and I started to get to know the faculty in the college. I took a tour of the college and I changed majors. I just knew I was at home.
[00:02:28] President William F. Tate IV: Well, you mentioned professors. Um, what do the faculty mean to you in terms of the mentorship and experiences that you've had?
[00:02:35] Madeline Fryer: I would not be where I am today without the faculty advisors that I've had. I just have a tremendous amount of appreciation to them. I'd like to give a shout out to my honors advisor, my, uh, thesis advisor, Dr. Benfield. He encourages me to ask questions. He answers my questions. He's patient, cause I ask a lot of questions, and he encourages me to apply for scholarships and fellowships, and he helps me with my writing. And I've just grown so much as a researcher and student because of his advising, and so huge thank you.
[00:03:07] President William F. Tate IV: Well, he's leading you on a thesis that means you're asking some questions. Tell us about your thesis and the potential impact it may have for us here in East Baton Rouge Parish.
[00:03:17] Madeline Fryer: So my thesis is the, the fancy terminology for it is utilizing UAVs to evaluate anthropogenic debris accumulation in an urban Baton Rouge watershed, which is just the really fun, scientific way of saying, using drones to study the flux and accumulation of trash in Baton Rouge water. So the particular place I'm looking at is Bayou Fountain. It drains the southern portion of East Baton Rouge. And actually Tiger Stadium is in the watershed. Uh, so Bayou Fountain recently had a boom installed in the intersection of Highland and Burbank and that boom collects garbage.
[00:03:54] And so my thesis uses drones to take picture of, pictures of the trash that's accumulating in that boom. And so the goal was to really look at the types of trash, the material, the amount and the brands that are accumulating.
[00:04:08] President William F. Tate IV: Is there a specific finding that you'd like to share with our community that, because this is a big problem and we need it resolved. So what's, what's your big takeaway from the thesis? You're close, right? You're almost done?
[00:04:20] Madeline Fryer: I actually defended it almost three or four weeks ago, so.
[00:04:24] President William F. Tate IV: Oh, congratulations.
[00:04:25] Madeline Fryer: Yes, thank you.
[00:04:26] President William F. Tate IV: That's awesome. So help us understand the big takeaway, cause we need to fix that problem.
[00:04:29] Madeline Fryer: Oh yeah, definitely. So I consider us to be living in a plastic pandemic. That's what I call it, because uh, single use plastics are everywhere. We use them for a matter of seconds and they persist in the environment for hundreds of years, and it's just a massive issue. And so one of the things I looked at in my study was, "what percent of the trash accumulating is plastic?" 87% of the trash is plastic. And that's a huge number.
[00:04:58] And that's including styrofoams, so takeout dishes, styrofoam cups, but it also includes beverage bottles, food wrappers. And I just think we need to evaluate our actions as individuals and as a society. And I think we need to reduce the usage of single-use plastics. Invest in a good water bottle and use tap water, uh, think before you pick up that straw. Do you really need a straw? Sometimes you do, but not all the time.
[00:05:26] President William F. Tate IV: Well, that's a lesson that's, um, gonna be tough. People's habits are, are hard to break. But I know you're not a psychologist on habits, but I, I appreciate that finding. Now, is it true that you'd like to be a pilot one day?
[00:05:40] Madeline Fryer: Yes. Oh my goodness. So for my research, I'm using drones and I had to get my FAA Part 107 Commercial Drone License. And when I went into it, I thought, "Okay, you know, I'll have to learn how, how far I can fly the drone, how high," that kind of stuff. But then I actually also had to learn like airspace classifications for airports, and I had to learn call codes and how to read weather briefings and all sorts of stuff that I kind of thought, "Well, that's more pilot related," but I needed to know it for my drone exam.
[00:06:08] Well, while studying I thought, "This is just the coolest ever." So I decided I wanted to get my pilot's license. I did my ground school. I've got four hours logged in an airplane. I'm working towards it. It's set on my calendar for 2025. By 2025, I want to have my private pilot license.
[00:06:25] President William F. Tate IV: All right. Well that's gonna be exciting to see. I hope you can use it for your research.
[00:06:31] Madeline Fryer: Uh, yeah. Yeah. They have lots of positions like NASA, National Park Service.
[00:06:36] President William F. Tate IV: You're a high achieving student. I mean, you are in the Honors College, you've done a thesis, you're going off to earn a PhD. Um, what do you attribute your success so far?
[00:06:48] Madeline Fryer: Definitely the support network and advisors that I have, uh, my family who always believes in me of course, and they encouraged me to follow my passions. And then my advisors here at lsu, the professors I've had, the faculty I've interacted with, they're just the most passionate people about their positions and their jobs and their research. And I think that having the opportunity to earn my education here has helped me become more passionate about the things that I am researching, because I, I see my professors and how much they care about their work, and so that's really helped me develop passion for the environment and research. And I think their encouragement has also been really helpful, just their advising in general. They're always open to questions, which I ask a lot of, so I just really appreciate the, the time that everyone in the College of the Coast and Environment is willing to give me when I have questions for them.
[00:07:47] President William F. Tate IV: Well, I love the fact that you ask a lot of questions. That's, that's, that is the heart of the university. That's how you discover. That's, that's awesome. Now have you started your internship in New Orleans? So you're in the middle of it right now?
[00:08:00] Madeline Fryer: I am, yes.
[00:08:01] President William F. Tate IV: So talk to us about the internship, and what are you learning, and why do you think it was important for your education?
[00:08:07] Madeline Fryer: You know, so it's actually, I'm interning for the New Orleans City government, the Mosquito, Termite and Rodent control board. And going into it, I don't have a background in entomology and so I'm working mostly with the mosquito people there. Uh, I, I don't have a strong background in entomology, but I did have a background in environmental science and a lot of the classes I've taken here have to do with pollution, so aquatic pollution, environmental toxicology, environmental chemistry, the organics, analytical chemistries.
[00:08:36] So I figured that working with them would be a great opportunity to learn a little bit more about pesticides, but it's also been so much more than that. I've learned to take care of mosquitoes in the insectary. I've learned all about the different types of mosquitoes, and it's just been really interesting and fascinating, because it's something I don't have a strong background in. But I've really appreciated the opportunity to learn about something that was a little outside of my comfort zone. So it's really helped me grow in that capacity. And it's kind of shown me, you know, I can go into something and as long as I'm willing to try and read and ask questions I can, I can really do anything I set my mind to.
[00:09:12] President William F. Tate IV: That's amazing. Now you've had a very special academic journey, and I'm gonna put you on the spot. If you had to pick one experience that you would say you're most proud of or just thankful that you had a chance to do, what, what would you pick?
[00:09:27] Madeline Fryer: I guess my answer to that is sort of twofold, mostly undergraduate research, but I, I, my thesis, so I'm gonna lump my thesis into undergraduate research. I'd have to say I, I got involved with undergraduate research within three months of being in the college my freshman year. I just responded to an email for someone looking for someone to help sample roots in a lab, and I thought, okay, this is the opportunity. So I started in that lab sorting roots, and then I moved to sorting microplastics.
[00:09:58] And then that's when I moved to Dr. Benfields's lab. And I was really enjoying the work on plastics in the environment, cause my parents have always taught me, you know, do not litter. I always have reusable bags in the car. I have a reusable water bottle, reusable straws. I carry utensils so I don't need to use a plastic fork when I eat out. So they've always taught me, take care of the environment. And I really appreciated the work that Dr. Benfield was doing on plastics in the environment, cause that's something that myself and my family is really passionate about. And so I asked him, we had a good working relationship, if he would be my thesis advisor, my mentor, and he agreed and we came up with this project together.
[00:10:36] So, uh, definitely undergraduate research and my thesis. It's just, It's just been instrumental in my growth as a student, and it's really reinforced what I've learned in the classroom.
[00:10:46] President William F. Tate IV: You have two of the three biggies that I think are important for an undergraduate. You did an internship, which I think is extremely important, and you've done undergraduate research. If you added study abroad, you'd have all three. But, you, you have traveled and thought about research and, and so it's, it's very special. I'm glad to hear your,
the way you described this. Now we know your next step is a PhD program. What do you hope to accomplish, um, in this next phase of your education and research?
[00:11:16] Madeline Fryer: So I've had lots of meetings with different PhD, potential PhD advisors and all of them say one thing in common, uh, a PhD, is to push the boundaries of science. It's to increase our knowledge of how the world works and it's to be able to ask really, really targeted, specific questions that are gonna benefit society, the environment somehow. So my goal is to be able to develop the ability to ask those really targeted, important questions that we can build upon for research, for development of the society, but also for taking care of the environment. And I wanna be able to contribute to research that's not been done before that pushes the boundaries of science and, and deepens our knowledge of how the world around us works.
[00:12:02] President William F. Tate IV: That's awesome. That's exactly what a PhD is for. So many people say they just wanna get a PhD, but you explained that extremely well. Excellent. What, what advice would you give newer LSU students right now, after you've had this experience, it's coming to an end, what would you tell them?
[00:12:19] Madeline Fryer: I mean, number one is get involved in undergraduate research. Number two is never be afraid to ask questions and go to your faculty's office hours, ask questions. Even if you don't think it's a really important question, go ask it. Because relationships with faculty are really important. They help, they answer your questions, they might write you a letter of recommendation.
[00:12:40] So I think developing a, a relationship with your faculty and professors is really important. But number one is get involved in undergraduate research. It's, it's just a great way to reinforce what you're learning in the classroom. It's a great way to improve your communication skills, and LSU makes it pretty easy to find someone to work with. Um, they have advisors everywhere. They have the Discover Undergraduate Research Program and they're willing to pair you with a faculty advisor, so get involved in research. It's just, it's a, it's amazing experience.
[00:13:11] President William F. Tate IV: Well, thank you for that. I, I concur. And I, I, I'm just, I'm getting excited hearing you talk about your excitement related to it. So let's go to some fun questions.
[00:13:19] Madeline Fryer: Okay.
[00:13:20] President William F. Tate IV: Favorite place on campus?
[00:13:22] Madeline Fryer: Mike's Habitat. I think that's my favorite. I try to go say hi to him when I'm walking to class. And a few weeks ago I went up to his, his habitat and he was sitting on his rock and I said, "Hey, Mike," you know, and I waved at him, and he walked over. I was so excited. I called my mom. I was like, "Mom, Mike just walked over to me. I said hi to him. I think he recognizes me," but that's probably not that. . .
[00:13:43] President William F. Tate IV: Alright. That's a, that's a great favorite place. Favorite memories from your time at LSU.
[00:13:48] Madeline Fryer: This one I'm gonna go back a little bit. Is that okay? My dad is an LSU grad.
[00:13:52] President William F. Tate IV: Okay.
[00:13:52] Madeline Fryer: And so I grew up coming to football games. I mean, I went to a football game at least once a year, every year of my life, other than the first year of the pandemic and so, and baseball games. And so my dad has always been a, a diehard LSU fan. And so growing up, he would bring me to campus all the time and he would point out, "Oh, I had class there. I was an RA there." And I always really loved that. So when I, when I came here for my schooling, I got to kind of, when I walk around I think, oh man, this is so cool. My dad used to have class in this building, or, oh, my dad used to live there. And so I kind of enjoy that. But I also love football games.
[00:14:26] President William F. Tate IV: Love that. I love that. I really do. Well, Madeline, it's just been a pleasure to get to hear you talk about your research and the excitement you have, and I wish you the very best in the future with your PhD studies. Congratulations on completing or nearly completing your undergraduate studies. We got a little more, while longer to go, but it's just really exciting to see, um, how passionate you are about research and your work with the coast and the environment and just best wishes to you.
[00:14:54] Madeline Fryer: Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.