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Alumna Studies Plastic Pollution in the Canadian Arctic

Bonnie Hamilton ’16 aims to determine the impact of multiple anthropogenic stressors in Arctic communities.

Bonnie Hamilton, an Alma College alumna who is currently pursuing Ph.D. in ecology and evolutiona...Bonnie Hamilton, an Alma College alumna who is currently pursuing Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto, is pictured working in the Canadian Arctic. Credit: Courtesy PhotoTORONTO — As a child, growing up in the White Mountains of Arizona, Bonnie Hamilton ’16 learned to appreciate and respect the knowledge and traditions of Indigenous peoples.

Thanks to her father, who worked at the time as a public health officer for the U.S. Public Health Service, dinner table conversations were often about Indigenous people and their relationship to the environment — specifically, how to identify and solve environmental issues caused by humans, in a way that can benefit Indigenous populations.

Hamilton is carrying on her father’s legacy today, as she pursues a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto. She studies a confluence of subjects related to plastic pollution in the Canadian Arctic.

Hamilton emphasized it “is important to understand what the community wants and incorporate their knowledge to answer these questions. This work isn’t about me — it’s about them.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamilton’s field season in Nunavut — Canada’s most northernly territory — has been canceled. But before the pandemic hit, she spent time researching in communities in the eastern and central Canadian Arctic.

Aesthetically speaking, Hamilton said, the region is spectacular, with wide-open vistas, glaciers and rugged mountains and rivers dotting the landscape. It’s quite cold, and a little dangerous — for example, researchers keep their eyes peeled for wolves and bears while they’re out on the land.

Perhaps the greatest feature about Nunavut are the Inuit people who live there, Hamilton said. Unfortunately, an enormous part of their livelihood — a species of fish known as Arctic char, which is common in the region — may be facing threats to its survival, due to man-made impacts on the environment such as climate change.

“I’m interested in looking at the consequences of legacy contaminants like PCBs, microplastics and climate change, and what the combined stressor effect those three factors have on the Arctic char,” Hamilton said. “It’s three big areas of science and I’m trying to meld them together.

“(The Inuit communities) want to know, are they ingesting plastic through the fish they’re eating? What does this mean for food security for them? It’s a very specific project, but there are much larger implications.”

Hamilton said the research has significance for people even outside of the north.
“When you consider something like climate change, you realize that people in the north may be seeing the impact of it right now, but people in the south will be feeling it eventually,” Hamilton said. “As far as contaminants are concerned, the Arctic acts as a sink. When the ice melts in the north, the contaminants that have built up over time can re-enter the ecosystem.”

Hamilton, who moved to Harbor Springs, Michigan as a teenager, said she elected to study at Alma in large part due to its setting in a small town. Now having graduated and moved on to a larger research institution, she credits the college with helping her get a leg up in the field, which may not have been possible for her peers attending larger colleges and universities.

“When I think about my academic experience and how it helped push me in the direction I’m in, I think about all the attention I got from my academic advisers,” she said. “I had opportunities to conduct research and publish a manuscript as an undergrad, which is pretty uncommon. At larger schools, you sort of have to fight grad students to get that attention.”

Hamilton said she isn’t entirely sure where her career path will take her after she leaves Toronto. But ultimately, she hopes, it will lead her back to where she started as a child — continuing to help Indigenous populations find answers to their questions, using the science she has learned along the way, in a government research position.

“At the end of the day, regardless of where I end up in my career, as long as I am working with and for these communities, I’m happy,” she said.

Story published on August 10, 2020