How Microbeads in your bodywash could be helping chemicals enter the foodchain

In 1976 chemical engineer John Ugelstad invented a technique on earth that other scientists believed could only be carried out in the weightless conditions of space. His discovery enabled the mass production of monodisperse spheres, tiny microscopic spherical plastic beads. The beads were typically 0.5 to 500 micrometres in diameter, about the width of 1 to 5 strands of human hair.

These little beads enabled new advances to be made in cancer treatments and helped create alternative methods for HIV, bacteriology and DNA research. Tiny latex beads still form the basis for some home pregnancy tests today and thanks to Uglestad’s discovery the medical use of microbeads has helped move drug treatments forward.

More recently, microbeads have moved from medical additives to exfoliators found in face washes, toothpaste, body scrubs, and other everyday beauty products. The non-biodegradable solid plastic beads are commonly made from polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyethyleneterephthalate, the same plastics used for single-use shopping bags and plastic bottles.

After washing off your skin, the microbeads go down the plughole and into the waste-water treatment plant where some of them become trapped in the filtering sludge, but due to their small size some microbeads pass through into our waterways and oceans.

Because their size and shape is similar to many plankton species, microbeads are eaten by marine creatures such as shrimp and fish caught for human consumption. Plastic particles from microbeads and other plastic items in the ocean have been found in the stomachs of fish, shellfish, turtles and birds and have caused harm to these creatures.

Plastic microbeads have been found to act like magnets around organic pollutants with reports indicating a single immersed plastic particle can absorb up to 1,000,000 times more of these chemicals than the water around it. The common pollutants including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, and perfluorinated surfactants (PFCs) have been found to stick to the beads due to their large surface area and the chemistry of the plastics used.

This absorption transforms the microbeads into chemical carrying dots and new research published in the journal environmental science and technology found that when feeding on similar sized food in the water, fish also ate PBDE exposed microbeads from a commercial facial scrub. After just 21 days, 12.5 per cent of PBDE chemicals were found to have leached from the ingested microbeads into the tissues of the fish causing concern that persistent organic pollutants accumulate in the tissue of fish exposed to microbeads and other plastic debris in their environment. Research is now underway to determine the implications of this chemical exposure pathway for public health by calculating how much pollution could be entering this human food chain.

Although many large cosmetics companies have made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads by 2020, they are easy to spot as plastic spheres visible in the liquid if consumers wanted to avoid them. Alternatives include sea salt, apricot kernels and ground seeds which can be used as biodegradable skin exfoliates.

Microbeads, are just one source of our oceans plastic pollution problem, and many other plastics grind down over time into small plastic pieces causing similar issues.

This year, Canada became the first country in the world to list microbeads as a toxic substance under the environmental protection act, allowing it to ban them in personal care products. The US has also moved to ban the production of personal care products and cosmetics containing microbeads from July 2017. It’s pleasing to see these other nations leading the way with their legislation, looking at the recent science research let’s hope that New Zealand will follow suit.


This post was originally posted in the New Zealand Herald



Dresses for Science and Tech loving women!

Percentage of female and male professional engineers in New Zealand (IPENZ)

Percentage of female and male professional engineers in New Zealand (IPENZ)

As a female engineer I’m very aware of being a minority in my field, and as time passes I seem to have become less sensitive to some of the comments, and inappropriate questions I’ve been asked during my career.

Studying the recent numbers makes for very sad reading as a lowly 13% of professional engineers are female in New Zealand, 14% are female in the US and a very sad 6% of engineers are female in the UK.

Some of the top reasons why women leave the engineering profession are listed as having feelings of isolation and loneliness as women struggle to fit in to a very male dominated field.

I’ve experienced this, and often am in tech focused businesses where the assumption is that I am filling an admin role or secretarial role.  When I explain that I’m attending a meeting as an engineering expert, males meeting me for the first time often act surprised, and say they weren’t expecting me to be female.  Hearing this once is annoying, but hearing this over my whole career implies that the trend is not changing.

T-Shirt worn in TV series Silicon Valley, no comment needed

T-Shirt worn in TV series Silicon Valley, no comment needed

I get it, our media world is filled with Sheldon Coopers, the world thinks that tech nerds are male, with no social skills and a robot T-shirt filled wardrobe.

I along with many other tech females I know wish the stereotype was changing and wish that we could fit in more to the tech field so that the initial questions asked relate to our Python code or friction free bearing design.

Last month I was in silicon valley and noted that the clothing many of the tech males wore typically reflected their interests.  Prints of Star wars characters, robot images, sci fi movie pictures, nerdy computer jokes were everywhere, all of them giving an outward message to others that this person, in this T-shirt had an interest in something techy.

I searched and searched for something similar that I could wear, something that reflected my interests, my personality and my clothing preferences, but all I could find were oversized, baggy mens T-shirts.

It was 2015, and I still couldn’t find a work meeting suitable dress that had pictures of robots on it.  Maybe I was being picky, maybe I should broaden my search and look for something science themed instead of engineering themed.  I searched and searched and still nothing.

I decided I needed to create something new, something that reflected me as a feminine female with an interest in science and technology to solve my frustrations.

Firstly I had to find my canvas, and with a love innovation, Icebreaker are one of the coolest, most innovative companies I know.  Their clothing is made from pure merino wool, a fabric that doesn’t need to be ironed (perfect for my suitcase filled travel life), can be worn for 40 days and 40 nights without needing to be washed,  and comes with a Baacode which lets me trace the farm that my wool came from.

Female Brontosaurus design

Female Brontosaurus design

So armed with some Icebreaker Merino dresses it was now time to create the tech designs.  With the help of the amazing tech designer Helen Simonson from Hoist apps, designs that reflected science and engineering in a feminine way were created.  The experience of Peter Heslop from AUT allowed us to be able to digitally print on merino with the added complexity of printing over the seams.

I love dinosaurs and with news that the Brontosaurus should be reinstated as its own genus, it seemed like the perfect dinosaur to showcase.  Dinosaurs from the outset probably aren’t that easy to sex, but I wanted this dinosaur to be very feminine, so with her long eyelashes and flower being held by her tail this creation was not just a man’s shirt logo transferred onto a skirt.

Brontosaurus design runs across this dress.  Details like holding a flower in her tail and having long eyelashes differentiate her as a female bronto

Brontosaurus design runs across this dress. Details like holding a flower in her tail and having long eyelashes differentiate her as a female bronto (Photo by Paul Petch)

Space, the final frontier, a line that defined my Star Trek filled childhood, and a scientific field that I’m fascinated in was finally reflected through this cross-seam design, filled with stars and planets and one non-gender specific space rocket.  I had to be careful where I put this design as I was conscious that I didn’t want the rocket flame to be firing out of my @$$!

Space rocket design dress

Space rocket design dress

Finally, as a huge robot nerd and co-founder of the charity OMGTech! which teaches children to build and code robots, the creation of a female robot design was the one that inspired this whole project.

Female robot design

Female robot design on a pink dress, because tech girls can be geeky and wear pink!

So now I have clothing that helps me to feel like part of the community I work in, and now my science and technology interests can be signaled before my gender comes into question.  Perhaps now I will get more questions about the technology I’m working on and less about how people weren’t expecting me to know so much about tech.

Perhaps creating clothing that is designed for both men and women will help reduce the feelings of isolation and instead create a more diverse community.  It’s not going to change the world, but it will change my wardrobe and hopefully be one step in the right direction for helping our little girls grow up seeing a space that welcomes them too.

This is what people in tech look like.  Janet (left), mechatronics engineer and make up artist, me (middle) materials engineer and nanotechnologist, Vivian (right) physicist and coder extraordinaire!

This is what people in tech look like. Janet (left), mechatronics engineer and make up artist, me (middle) materials engineer and nanotechnologist, Vivian (right) physicist and coder extraordinaire!

100% Kiwi designed and made – thanks New Zealand 🙂

To see the slides associated with this idea click here:

Spiders create super-strong webs with nanotechnology!

Take two fascinating strong materials, spider silk and carbon nanotubes, and mix them to create a material with a combined strength, toughness and ductility that’s just not been seen before.

If you just want to watch this story, click on the picture video link, otherwise keep reading.

It sounds like a happy weekend in Italy with a picnic story that took a turn for the scientific.

“We randomly selected 15 Pholcidae spiders” starts the supplementary information as the scientists mention areas they collected the spiders from and describe the 4 air holes they put in each of the boxes used to hold the spiders.  These boxes coincidentally are the exact same size as my lunch box that I would take on a picnic in the Italian countryside.  They they explain how they combined nanotubes or graphene with water and sprayed the spiders in the box with the solution then let them naturally spin their webs.

What they found is that 4 of the spiders died after being sprayed, either due to the spray or being kept in a box I assume.  Some spiders made weaker silk, but a few special ones seemed to turn the nanotubes into a part of their silk to create a silk stronger than any known fibre!

Image from original author paper showing their sketch of the spider spraying process (source)

Image from original author paper showing their sketch of the spider spraying process (source)

With a measured fracture strength (how much force to break) up to 5.4 GPa and a toughness modulus (how much energy absorbed while breaking) up to 2.1 GPa these values surpass synthetic polymeric high performance fibres like Kelvar!

I do believe the results, but having tried to measure the tensile properties of thin strands in my previous job, I do have to address my concerns on the effect of humidity and slip on these types of tests and how difficult they are to carry out, be comparable to tests in other labs and to remove slip and alignment error from.  What they are trying to do is not easy and obtaining similar samples to make repeatable tests comparable is also very difficult.

Still, all concerns aside I think it’s a fantastic idea and perhaps a solution to our materials problems of trying to find a glue that sticks individual nanotubes together while keeping the desired properties of both strength and ductility.

The only problem with scaling it up is that many spiders are cannibals, so keeping them apart from each other may be the first priority on the spider farm list.  Which incidentally leads on to my next story where Israeli scientists found evidence that Stegodyphys lineatus spiders engage in matriphage, where the mother feeds herself to her young after they hatch.

Picture of feeding her young (source)

Picture of Stegodyphys lineatus feeding her young (source)

By releasing her babies from their web cocoon, she then dissolves her intestines and regurgitates this juice for her young until 96% of her mass is used up and only her heart and exoskeleton is left.  This process takes about 2 weeks, but she can stop it up to 5 days into the process which is good as if a male spider were to come at this time, he would eat all of her babies, and she could still survive in order to mate with him and repeat the process again with her next set of offspring!

Hmmm, probably not the Mothers Day story you were hoping for.

Sexism in Engineering and Science – you only know what you know

Being a woman in engineering I’m in the minority. Only 11% of practising engineers are female and although I’ve never had my ponytail touched as an engineer (but I have as a bartender and waitress), I do come across situations that do not make me feel welcome based on my gender.

Plot of what women with engineering degrees who never enter engineering are doing now (source)

Plot of what women with engineering degrees who never enter engineering are doing now (source)

Studies show that 40% of females who have engineering degrees leave the profession or never enter the field, and that seems like a terrible waste of resources for me as an educator, and for you as a taxpayer.

In a recent study, psychologists found that the biggest pushbacks female engineers receive come from the environments they work in with an “old-boys club” still existing in many engineering organizations with many calling the engineering workplace unfriendly and even hostile to women.

As a lecturer of engineering, our intake hovers around 25% females, which is much higher than many other institutions and we work hard to develop industrial relationships with local companies to ensure our graduates move on to great jobs after finishing their degrees. I spend 4 years mentoring, teaching and advising these students during their undergraduate degrees and want to ensure that my students move on to safe workplaces which utilize their engineering talents and knowledge with equal opportunities and respect for their expertise. Today in the New Zealand Herald I was reported to have “slammed engineering firms sexist advertising“, and I did.

But more than that I wanted to highlight a company that publically demonstrates behaviour that I would consider sexist and objectifies females.  Why am I picking on this one company specifically?  Mainly because they have been shameless in being openly public about their “risky” advertising campaign and have a facebook page that seems to reflect a culture based around harassment, bullying and objectification.  I’m sure they are not the only company in the world that does this, but they are one which  when approached, don’t seem to accept that what they are doing is harmful or detrimental to women, especially women in engineering.

Article from the New Zealand Herald reporting on our conversations with a local business owner

Article from the New Zealand Herald reporting on our conversations with a local business owner

The thing about sexism, actually the thing about any “ism” is that you only know what you know.  I don’t know much about racism as a black male in Baltimore right now, other than what I have read online as I try to educate myself about the situation.  My perspective can only come from my experiences as a person of mixed race who has encountered racism throughout her life, but my personal experience will be very different to a black male in Baltimore who may feel victimised for different reasons after a long build-up of many events in their life.  I can only use my own experience to be empathetic to their situation and to take time to think about my opinions about racism in different circumstances.  It’s also why I don’t expect some males who have worked in the engineering industry for a long time to necessarily see how their workplace may be hostile to females as things are running the way they always have, but they only know what they know, and probably haven’t experienced the objectification or felt vulnerable as a minority in a workplace.  By trying to have open conversations with others, as frustrating as they can be sometimes, I think they are crucial to evaluating our own thoughts and opinions about sex, race, gender and religion.

Where form follows function, photograph of truck from local engineering company

Where form follows function, photograph of truck from local engineering company

When one of my female engineering students brought to my attention a local engineering firm whose business trucks  included a large photograph of a bikini clad female and the tagline “where form follows function”, I’ll admit my hackles were raised.  How on earth is this not objectification of women?  I have no real issues with women in bikinis being used in advertising where there is relevance, perhaps a sunscreen product or beachwear catalogue, but this is sheet metal, under no circumstances to my knowledge as a materials engineer, are bikinis ever worn.  Geez, there are a whole bunch of PPE and safety rules against this in real life! But again, giving them the benefit of the doubt, I checked out their company online.  Surely this was just a marketing campaign to draw attention to their company, which although sexist, was a one off, and even though there had been a complaint to the advertising standards agency, it had been dismissed, so I was obviously just being a little sensitive.

Facebook profile picture for business page of local engineering firm

Facebook profile picture for business page of local engineering firm

Heading over to the facebook page of the company I was greeted to this lovely lady for their profile picture. Now it looks to me that this female is also breaking all of the PPE safety gear expected in a metal working lab, and I hope it’s summer otherwise she will be freezing!

I’ll let you peruse through their page, but this one picture was not in isolation and some of the other pictures implied a corporation that was not at all female friendly or inviting including this public photograph of an employee being tied to a pole at work and drenched in canola oil.  Although this may not be sexist, it does not imply a culture that I think any female (or male) would feel safe working in.

Image taken from public facebook page of company showing how an employee has been tied to a pole, then covered in canola oil. (source)

Image taken from public facebook page of company showing how an employee has been tied to a pole, then covered in canola oil. (source)

Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and I’m always willing to have mature conversations with people about sexism, their perspectives and experiences, so some of my engineering students and I decided to head out to this company to see if they would chat to us about the issue so that we could hear their side of the story and expose them to the next generation of engineers, of which 25% are female.

When we arrived we were lucky enough to speak with the Director of the company who immediately saw a group of females and greeted us by trying introduce one of his single male workers to the girls telling him that he could “set them up on a date, as he was a nice single lad”.  Seriously, before we had even introduced ourselves as professional engineers, he spent over a minute pimping out his male employee (who seemed very uncomfortable about it all) to what I think he assumed was a group of girls looking for a man.  He also didn’t to seem to think anything was wrong with that when I explained that his introduction was probably not the most professional way to greet engineers who he didn’t know.

Conversations between myself, my students and the company director

Conversations between myself, my students and the company director

Without getting into too much detail about the 10 minute conversation we had, I was startled that when we asked him about whether he thought his companies van was sexist, he replied no and said it was a “bit risky” but he didn’t see the harm in it.

Tell that to your 6 year old daughter as she sits in the car stuck in traffic staring at a bikini clad woman who is stating that “form follows function”.

I also asked him how he felt about his companies facebook page portraying scenes of abuse of staff and pin-up calendar pictures, many of which were full size hanging on the walls inside their premises.  Again, he said he didn’t think they were sexist and could prove it as he had women working at his company.

Now I get that some of you may think that this is all over the top, that engineering firms have always had pin-up calendars and playful banter between employees, and I agree.  But we also used to smoke in airplanes and around our children, however education and public pressure mean that things evolve and change, usually for the better, and this is no different.

Another advertisement that seems to relate scantily clad women to products that I don't think they would use dressed like that! (source)

Another advertisement that seems to relate scantily clad women to products that I don’t think they would use dressed like that! (source)

I don’t want to victimise just one company, there are other examples out there including this one which somehow associates sexual relations with a female and fork-lift trucks.

Why would you want women in your workplace anyway?  Well study after study shows that a diverse workplace, including more women in the company and on boards leads to increased sales revenue, more customers, and greater relative profits, so if it doesn’t make at least moral sense to you it should make financial sense.

Times are changing, the traditional gender stereotypes in industries are evolving and we need to have these conversations in public, both to reflect on our own opinions and to understand perspectives from others that we can’t experience ourselves.

So, you only know what you know, but opening the conversation so that all sides can speak means that we all get to know a little bit more.

If you are open to seeing what smart female engineers look like who are not in bikinis then let me introduce you to some of my incredible students who want to have this conversation with you too.