Skip navigation

School of Ocean Science and Engineering

Student Spotlight: Rachel Lancaster

Page Content

Rachel Lancaster Photo

What interested you about your field of study?

I have always been interested in the ocean when I was younger, but I was always let down by the poor maintenance of the beaches whenever I visited. Even in the more excellent areas, there was always litter buried in the sand, pollutants of all kinds in the water, or giant constructions built over what would otherwise be a beautiful and healthy shoreline. However, for the longest time, all I could do was talk about the problems as a teacher, putting my resolve on the back burner and hoping someone else could fix the ocean. It wasn’t until I was recommended to apply for USM that I finally felt like there was something I could do to contribute to the rehabilitation of the marine environment. My research question is to find a universal method for quantitatively analyzing microplastics and nanoplastics in aquatic systems. So far, there have been no methods that accommodate both micro and nano plastics, so if proven successful, scientists would have a way to create a much clearer picture of the amount of plastic pollutants in the ocean.

What is/was the road to your degree path? 

Long, enlightening, and filled with detours. 

Why USM?

The university was not too far from my hometown and had interdisciplinary programs, such as marine science, which few universities offer (while most universities on the coast only offer marine biology). The Division of Marine Science also works at the Stennis Space Center with NASA, MSU, and NOAA, where there could be potential networking and job opportunities once I graduate.

What job do you hope to obtain in your field of study after you graduate?

There are one or two options I would consider taking after graduation. One is to take a break from academia and focus more on scientific communication. I am also interested in working with NOAA to conduct a global analysis of plastic particles in the ocean, given what I know about these pollutants. However, I feel that my true calling is mentoring students in STEM. I have witnessed firsthand how a dependable advisor can greatly impact a student's future. This is the main reason I would consider staying in academia.

If you are a recent graduate, do you have a job in your degree field?  What does that job entail?

I received my master’s in biology in 2019 but decided to become a high school science teacher before attending USM, where I lead classes in Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Space Science, and Algebra. It was a very different change of pace, a task that I felt overqualified for yet overwhelmed simultaneously. Despite its challenges, it gave me a better appreciation for teaching and mentoring. For that reason, I would not mind rejoining the education system, just perhaps at the college level instead. 

Please share any other information that you feel would be helpful to other students or potential students about your degree. 

As a graduate student, don't compare your progress with others; mistakes are expected, and expectations differ from project to project. But more importantly, remember to take breaks and prioritize your well-being. The most ambitious people are often miserable because they don’t believe in naps. That is to say, your work is essential, but it's not worth losing sleep over.