TWU graduate and environmental educator Katharine Sell fights microplastic pollution, helps protect marine life
“I love seeing how God has bridged sciences and my faith together over my time at Trinity, and even after Trinity, through opportunities he’s provided to me."
— Katharine Sell, Environmental Studies ('19)
When COVID-19 interrupted Katharine Sell’s work as an environmental educator, she had no idea what new opportunities would open up for her next. A surprise internship with A Rocha USA led Sell to support environmental efforts in Florida, including helping horseshoe crabs to survive and tackling microplastic pollution in the oceans.
A native to Birch Bay, Washington, Sell had been working seasonally with the Birch Bay State Park as an educator and naturalist for five years, prior to the pandemic. Each summer from May to August, Sell would venture out onto the beaches along the Salish Sea to teach Birch Bay’s campers, tourists and the public about marine biology.
When 2020 came and Sell’s park work came to a halt, she was initially unsure of where to go next.
From park naturalist to online educator
Staying true to her passion for the environment, Sell soon became an online science educator. Through her work with a non-profit environmental organization, Garden of the Salish Sea Curriculum, Sell began designing marine science curriculum for K-12 students throughout the Whatcom County school district.
Sell’s background in environmental education makes her a great fit for the role. A graduate of environmental studies at Trinity Western University, Sell had taught TWU’s Salmon in the Valley program, helping 4th and 5th graders learn about the natural resources of the Salmon River in Langley, B.C. During her studies at TWU, Sell had also conducted research in Hawaii, and in Salt Spring Island, B.C. As well, Sell had supported Canadian conservation efforts through working at A Rocha Canada in Surrey, B.C.
A short year after her graduation, the global pandemic curtailed Sell’s plans to pursue conservation work internationally. During a time of uncertainty, Sell leaned into her Christian faith to prayerfully seek direction. While waiting and praying, Sell wrote to A Rocha USA inquiring about internship opportunities. Their reply – which initially promised another long wait – quickly turned into an immediate opportunity.
A surprise internship: working at A Rocha USA
Within a week of inquiring at A Rocha, Sell was on her way to Florida.
“God’s timing was just incredible,” she said.
In February 2021, Sell completed an internship at A Rocha’s Florida laboratory, working alongside Dr. Robert Sluka, who specializes in marine and coastal conservation, also an area of interest for Sell.
During her time in Florida, Sell studied horseshoe crabs and oceanic microplastic pollution, and worked alongside Dr. Sluka.
Tackling microplastic pollution, joining the Great Nurdle Hunt
Even as a scientist, Sell found the extent of microplastic pollution surprising.
Microplastics, she described, are tiny pellets five millimeters or smaller. One example of microplastics are nurdles – lentil-sized beads used in the manufacture of plastic products. Nurdles are commonly discharged through wastewater or spilled from cargo ships during transport.
Easily swallowed by wildlife and then passed along the foodchain, nurdles are a huge environmental problem.
“They are really small to the naked eye but they can be ingested by foraging fish or seabirds that mistake them for just little bits of sand,” Sell explained.
To help uncover the extent of the pollution, Sell and other surveyors walked up and down the sandy beaches scanning the shoreline for nurdles. They recorded their findings for the Great Nurdle Hunt that tracks microplastics worldwide.
“I’ve never personally been exposed to or aware of the extent of microplastic pollution,” Sell admitted. “I’ve always thought of (pollutions as) large plastic bags or plastic debris.”
Sell discovered that, when gathered together, the tiny pieces of microplastic easily add up. “It wasn’t until we actually picked up each plastic fiber …(that) suddenly those tiny little things that just blend in the sand were becoming fistfuls of colorful debris that should not be in our environment.”
“That was mind-blowing to me,” she said. “That little piece of plastic that seems like it’s no big deal... [gathered together] my hands are suddenly full of all this stuff that does not belong in God’s creation.”
In addition to tackling marine pollution, Sell also studied horseshoe crabs during their peak breeding season.
When horseshoe crabs emerge by moonlight
While Sell was in Florida, she had the chance to observe breathtaking scenes of horseshoe crabs emerging from the ocean by moonlight.
This was the first time that she had seen horseshoe crabs live, and not simply lab specimens. “I went out on the night of new moon and counted two hundred of them on the beach,” she said.
Soon, more amazing sightings would follow.
“One night there was a storm that blew in, and my professor called me up and said ‘You need to come out to the beach right now. They’re everywhere.’”
Sell said that the scene looked like "something from a sci-fi movie.”
“They were just coming out of the water to try to breed and bury their eggs in the sand. …It was insane,” she recounted.
Sell and her team moved quickly that night, working to tag as many horseshoe crabs as possible. “It was crazy,” she said, “It was literally us taking a stick and counting in groups of ten, marking them off, as many as we could, while waves pushed crabs up on the shore.”
Sell reported, “within a 50 meter stretch of shoreline, we counted…5,440 crabs.”
During their study, Sell and her colleagues would tag each crab, measure its size, record the weight and approximate age, and look for signs of molting. After collecting the data, they would analyze patterns of breeding and migration – detecting clues of the species’ overall health and survival.
Apart from observing horseshoe crab species as a whole, Sell also helped animals one by one.
Making God smile, one horseshoe crab at a time
Sell explained that horseshoe crabs become very vulnerable to predation when flipped, because they only have legs on their underside. So if they are turned over by a wave, for example, “they are basically stuck,” she said.
To help ensure their survival, one of the things Sell and her team did was rescue stranded crabs one by one. “We would just walk the beach, and we would physically flip over every horseshoe crab we could,” she said. This simple act increased the chances of the animals returning to the water to lay eggs.
It may seem like a tedious and tireless task. While others may wonder whether it’s worth the effort, for Sell, it’s her Christian faith that gives meaning to her work.
“You can’t help but smile and think that…God is really pleased to know that someone cares even about a horseshoe crab, taking time to flip them over on the beach and helping them get back into the water, and ensure their survival and their livelihood,” she said.
Sell remembers how small moments brought new insight for her. “I flipped this one motionless one over, and as I touched it, its legs started slowly trashing in the air. I realized it was alive.” Upon closer inspection, Sell saw that the crab was entangled – wrapped by translucent fishing line.
“That’s when the ‘aha’ moment hit me,” she said.
“The horseshoe crabs and the microplastics – they’re connected, they’re significant,” she said, drawing the relationships between her two projects. “This is why we don’t want these plastics in our oceans.”
Sell took the time to untangled the animal, setting it free. She described the experience as “a super cool spiritual environmental moment.” Further down the beach, she saw yet another crab trapped by plastic debris, and she saved that one as well.
To help the environment, begin with awareness
When asked what ordinary citizens can do to help the environment, Sell said that the best way is to start with awareness. By learning and growing more aware of environmental aspects that society is neglecting, people can become motivated to work towards making changes.
This is part of the reason why Sell chooses to work in environmental education.
Back in Birch Bay, Sell is continuing to develop online science lessons for K-12 students, through her work with Garden of Salish Seas Curriculum. Currently, she is developing a lesson series on harmful algae blooms, which teaches kids how algae toxins can endanger large predators like whales.
One day, Sell hopes to expand her environmentalism work by returning to Florida or relocating to A Rocha’s Kenya site. “Somewhere warm,” she says of her ideal workplace, “with lots more marine science to continue in.”
Despite the challenges of a pandemic year, Sell remains grateful.
Although she had graduated with big dreams, “It was really a matter of …waiting on God’s timing and asking what he had in store for me,” she said. “And so, spiritually, (in) 2020 I grew so much.”
Sell was thrilled about her chance opportunity to work in Florida for A Rocha. “That was just God,” she said. “That was God’s timing in making that happen.”
“It’s hard to wait,” she concluded, “But I’ve learned that waiting on God’s time is always better.”
Indeed, for Sell, faith and environmental science are closely linked.
“I love seeing how God has bridged sciences and my faith together over my time at Trinity, and even after Trinity, through opportunities he’s provided to me,” she said.
This spring and summer, Sell and her colleagues are walking the beaches of Whatcom Country, with film equipment in hand. In normal years, they would be visiting classrooms or inviting students out onto the beach. Instead, they are now developing educational videos.
“My co-worker and I would go out, and we would film ourselves essentially as if the kids were there with us,” she said. After post-production, the video curriculum is delivered to the Whatcom school district for their use in science education.
To learn more about Katharine Sell's work, visit:
About Trinity Western University
Founded in 1962, Trinity Western University is Canada’s premier Christian liberal arts university dedicated to equipping students to establish meaningful connections between career, life, and the needs of the world. It is a fully accredited research institution offering liberal arts and sciences, as well as professional schools in business, nursing, education, human kinetics, graduate studies, and arts, media, and culture. It has four campuses and locations: Langley, Richmond-Lansdowne, Richmond-Minoru, and Ottawa. TWU emphasizes academic excellence, research, and student engagement in a vital faith community committed to forming leaders to have a transformational impact on culture. Learn more at www.twu.ca or follow us on Twitter @TrinityWestern, on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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