CHEMS Student Studies Ocean Debris

CHEMS Student Studies Ocean Debris
Short Description: 
Gabrielle (Gabby) Kleber raises awareness of ocean debris.

Gabrielle (Gabby) Kleber, a chemical engineering and materials science junior from Clarkston, Mich., spent this past summer on beaches around the world, including Hawaii, Australia, Singapore, the Maldives, England, and Iceland. However, it was not a glamorous summer boondoggle. This was serious research that combined Kleber’s enthusiasm for the outdoors and her concern for the environment. She studied and collected data for the often overlooked issue of marine debris.

  “I first learned about the overwhelming amount of trash in our oceans that also washes up on beaches in an issue of Discover magazine,” says Kleber, who has a concentration in environmental engineering and a minor in environmental studies. “I was appalled to learn that there are millions of tons of trash floating in our oceans. I developed a strong interest in this environmental concern.”

 At about the same time, Kleber discovered that the Circumnavigators Club Foundation provides grants to enable outstanding college students at participating universities to undertake around-the-world travel-study projects in the summer between their junior and senior years. The Circumnavigators Club is an international organization, founded in 1902, devoted to bringing together men and women who have gone around the world. The organization has a Michigan chapter.

 “I could not think of a more pertinent topic than marine debris to study while circling the globe,” says Kleber. “I wanted to analyze the volume, composition, source, and impact of marine litter on coastal ecosystems.” Her primary goal was--and still is--to raise global awareness of this issue. Kleber’s proposal was approved by the Circumnavigators Club Foundation in November 2008. Three other proposals were funded from students at Princeton, Northwestern, and Georgetown; these proposals mainly concentrated on global social issues. Kleber was required to visit at least five different countries in three regions of the world, and she could not spend more than $4,500 on flights. She ended up buying an “around the world” ticket and supplemented that with some additional flights or other transportation within the various countries. She did most of the planning for the trip while completing a semester-long internship in Thailand during the winter/spring of 2009. “I planned the trip completely by myself, 100 percent.” That included figuring out the logistics of where to stay and what people in each country had info that would add to her data. She often camped out or stayed with local people whom she contacted ahead of time or happened to meet.

 The trip took her to less touristy beaches, some in remote locations, but everywhere there was trash that included shoes, a rifle, plastic pieces, wrappers, diapers, fishing net, bottles, and even a Barbie doll and a couch. Water bottles were the most common items she found on the beaches. At each location, Kleber selected a stretch of beach and then sorted the debris into piles of like objects. If a piece of debris had a bar code, she saved the code in order to identify the country where it came from.

 In addition to the data she collected, Kleber believes that she grew as a person. “I love to travel but this experience of traveling alone and finding my way as I went, and dealing with the complex logistics of the venture, helped me to mature and look at things differently.”

 Kleber is preparing a 50-page report for the Circumnavigators Club and is working on a paper that she hopes to get published. After her MSU graduation, Kleber would like to get a master’s degree in oceanography. “The University of California at San Diego has a big project that studies the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, which contains one of the largest ecosystems on Earth, but it is in danger from a deluge of plastic trash.” 

 Kleber is the daughter of Richard and Janet Kleber.

Gabrielle (Gabby) Kleber, a chemical engineering and materials science junior, received a grant from the Circumnavigators Club Foundation this past summer to study marine debris. Pictured here on 6 Mile Beach on Groote Eylandt Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria of Australia, she is standing on a truckload of nets that she picked up with the help of the Anindilyakwa Rangers. Gabby and one of the rangers, Philip, are holding the Circumnavigator's Club Flag.