Sherri “Sam” Mason

Professor of Chemistry, Environmental Science Program Coordinator
Research Institution: State University of New York at Fredonia
Home state: New York
What got you interested in science and how did you end up as a Great Lakes scientist?

I became interested in science in sixth grade when we were given an assignment that I can only assume was intended to start us working on our oral communication skills. Each student had to choose a topic, in any subject, and research and present it to the class. I chose ‘why oil and water don’t mix.’ After my presentation I told my teacher I really enjoyed learned about the topic and he said it sounded like what I liked was Chemistry. Little bells went off in my head and I was sold. From that moment forward I wanted to be a chemist.

Soon after I was watching an episode of Diff’rent Strokes, in which Kimberly washes her hair with rainwater and it turns her hair green. In the episode they say it is because of acid rain (not at all realistic, but that’s not the point). That was the first moment that I remember realizing that we humans have an impact upon the planet by how we live and I wanted to ‘reverse’ any of that damage we were doing. {My thoughts on this point have evolved slightly since then, though the basic intent is the same.} It was at this moment I then decided that I wanted to learn Chemistry but apply that knowledge to the environment.

I moved to Upstate New York, along the shores of Lake Erie, in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2011 (ten years later) that I ever went out in the Great Lakes. I started co-teaching an environment science methods course aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara that took me out sailing within the waters of the lakes and I was forever changed. For the first time I really realized how incredible these lakes are and that is what converted me from just an environmental scientist to a Great Lakes scientist.

Describe your research related to the Great Lakes.

I study plastic pollution within Great Lakes. Basically it started with a simple question (while aboard the Brig Niagara in 2011): ‘We have known and studies for over a decade about plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. I wonder if there is plastic in the Great Lakes?’ In 2012 and 2013 we conducted our first expeditions to survey the open-waters of the Great Lakes and what we found was startling: very large concentrations of extremely small particles of plastic within the surface waters of every Great Lake, with the counts roughly increasing as we followed the flow of the water. This led to additional questions as to where they were coming from, where they were going to and what happens to them along the way.

Describe an experience you have had working with educators or the community. What was something that surprised you or that you especially enjoyed about the experience?

From beach clean-ups to classroom visits I work with community members and educators frequently, but probably my most memorable experience was the one-week course I got to participate in aboard the EPA R/V Lake Guardian. This intent of this course was to educate the educators on the most current Great Lakes (specifically Lake Erie) scientific research so that they could bring this back to the classroom and to their students. One aspect that I especially enjoyed about the experience was that throughout the week I kept thinking about how just me being there touching these 12 educators, how that was going to spread to impacting hundreds of children through the teachers. I really love that web/ripple effect. Beyond that big picture enjoyment, was the excitement and interest the educators showed. They wanted to know and understand about everything, they wanted to learn and figure out ways to bring this experience back to their students. I loved the passion they showed, and it gave me hope for our future (something difficult to find as an environmentalist).

Why do you think it is important for scientists to share their research with educators?

We can sit in our labs and do our work all day and night, we could discover all sorts of amazing and awful things, but if we don’t share it, what’s the point? The point of science is to learn and use that knowledge to improve society, and what better way to have that sort of impact than to share it with the youngest members of our society. Educators allow people like me to do that. I can’t possibly do everything I do with regard to research AND be in every classroom across the nation sharing it with the kids, who are our future. The educators are the conduits by which I am able to share what I do with a larger audience and for that I am especially grateful and appreciative.

What do you think are the most critical skills for students interested in a career in science?

I don’t know that it is a ‘skill’ per se, but PASSION is the most important trait a student must have. With passion you can make anything possible. Beyond that basic driving factor, students need to be willing to put in the time and effort to learn the basics, think critically about everything, be creative in approaching problems, and have proper reading, writing, oral communication and math skills. Science is often considered to be ‘hard’- personally I think we each have different abilities in different areas and I have never found science to be that hard because it meshes with how my brain works- but the best things in life are those we have to work for.