**Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the International Coastal Cleanup.

As someone who didn’t spend a lot of time at the beach until her 20s, Marine Scientist Kara Lavender Law laughs when asked if she knew she would grow up to be an oceanographer.

“No! If you had asked me what an oceanographer was, I wouldn’t have known,” Law says. “I was a math major and wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my degree. My father kept asking if I liked science, and reminded me that math is a tool for science. It wasn’t until I was introduced to ocean physics at Duke University that the right note was hit for me to use math to better understand our natural world.”



Marine Debris Expert Kara Lavender Law

The math major went on to earn her doctorate in physical oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California-San Diego. With a desire to teach the importance of the ocean on the health of the planet, she landed at Sea Education Association (SEA) in Massachusetts, where students learn both in the classroom and out at sea. It was through SEA’s unmatched 30-plus year history of plastics data collection that she found her niche.

In the mid-1980s SEA scientists started noticing plastics in their surface-towing plankton nets, and one scientist had the foresight to have students collect and record plastics captured to create what is now the largest plastics data set in the world.

Law says, “When outside collaborators contacted SEA about our plastic data set, it was the perfect time for me to explore where we encounter plastics and why. It was then that my career in plastic pollution in the sea was launched.”

Millions of pounds of trash litter coastlines across the world, negatively impacting the ocean, its wildlife and the people who earn their living from the ocean. Law is one of a small group of scientists who study marine debris, with a goal to determine solutions for preventing it.

Law’s work extends beyond SEA to principal investigator of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) Marine Debris scientific working group. Convened by Ocean Conservancy in 2011, the group provides new insights into the scale, scope and impacts of marine plastics. This research is expected to help inform recommendations to policymakers and industry and guide future research on marine plastics. Law also serves as a scientific advisor to Trash Free Seas Alliance, which The Coca-Cola Company helped establish with Ocean Conservancy, also in 2011.

When asked what has been the most interesting finding in her plastic research, Law says, “While we know more plastic is going into the ocean every year, the amount of plastic we’re finding where plastic traditionally collects has remained constant. It’s a conundrum. Where is it going? That’s what we need to find out.”

It’s a math equation that just isn’t adding up.

Law explains that there is still a lot to learn about what is in our oceans and more work is needed to uncover the sources of marine debris. Preventing plastic from entering the ocean in the first place is the only viable solution to this problem.


Marine Debris Expert Kara Lavender Law


Law says, “When I think too much about the amount of plastic in our ocean, it can be depressing. But awareness is a good first step. Now we need to figure out how to keep it out.”

Hopefully the math plus science background will ultimately equal a healthier planet.

On September 20, 2014, join the Ocean Conservancy in its annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). We can all contribute to making our coastlines cleaner. Read about Coca-Cola’s involvement in ICC.