Meet Keith Andringa | Birds & Microplastics

Hi, Keith! Thanks so much for sitting down with the Rewildology community today. Tell us, what do you do?

I’m a PhD Student at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Interdisciplinary Program. My advisor is Dr. Jacquelyn Grace, who has formulated her career and research laboratory to ask “how do wild birds respond to stress?” My work in her lab has spanned a few projects, but the goal of my current research is to assess physiological responses to microplastics (which are any plastic particles less than 5mm wide) and how they may be a vector to expose birds, specifically Clapper Rails (Rallus crepitans) to other environmental toxins, like heavy metals. The Texas coast is a global hotspot for microplastic contamination, and we are just beginning to realize the impacts of these smaller plastics on our wildlife. The ultimate goal of my research is to inform microplastic and ecotoxin mitigation strategies across the environment, and to establish safe, effective ways to assess the effects of microplastics on birds. (All research performed under the following permits and approvals: USGS Master Banding- 24360; TPWD-SPR-0822-123; TAMU IACUC)

Microplastics are the devil! (Bonus points for naming the movie). But seriously, this sounds like incredibly important work. Our birds are having a hard time. What is the journey that led you to study microplastics in birds?

Oh boy! I’m sure my mother could tell you many stories about my childhood love of birds. I remember one Halloween, I was maybe seven or eight years old, I begged my mom to make me an “ornithologist costume.” My mom, being the amazing woman she is, bought me an oversized lab coat, safety goggles, and sewed one of my stuffed animals onto my shoulder. I guess I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. 

But my path to becoming an ornithologist was never very clear. Throughout high school and my first semester of undergrad, I shifted my focus to mathematics and statistics, but every class I took and statistician I met seemed passionless. I had also been struggling with my mental health for years and made the decision to really pursue what made me happy. It was birds- I decided to pursue a career that would make my childhood self proud. I haven’t looked back since, and now I teach the lab sections of General Ornithology at Texas A&M, was permitted as a USGS Master Bander, and spend my workdays with the birds!

It’s amazing how much better we feel when we pursue our passion. On that note, what advice do you have for other fellow Rewildologists?

Don’t let your dreams stay dreams- make them a reality! For me the easiest way to do that was to find a career that brings me fulfillment and feeds a lifelong passion for conservation, and my plan is to teach the next generation of ecologists. Even if you don’t want conservation biology or wildlife to be your career, there is a seat for you at the Conservation Table– just channel your interests and participate in conservation however you can!

Thank you so much for your time, Keith!

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