Stanford postdoc wins a Science and SciLifeLab prize for young scientists

Birds that eat plastic may be doing so in part because it smells like food to them. MATTHEW SAVOCA, a postdoctoral fellow in biology at Stanford, explains the science behind this statement in an essay that won this year’s Science and SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists in the ecology and environment category.

The prize, which aims to encourage promising early-career scientists, is based on applicants’ doctoral research. Savoca’s essay, published Nov. 22 in Science as part of his win, condenses a 150-page dissertation into less than 1,000 words – a task well-suited for Savoca, who has made a habit of communicating his science to broad audiences.

Matthew Savoca
Matthew Savoca, a postdoctoral fellow in biology, won the 2018 Science and SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists in the ecology and environment category. (Credit: Matt Koller)

“I really don’t like science that’s done in an echo chamber,” said Savoca about his decision to submit an essay. “Scientists often do work that’s quite interesting and would be interesting to the general public if they ever found out about it – if it was ever translated appropriately to them.”

Savoca’s research, which he completed at the University of California, Davis, focused on a certain group of seabirds that are known to eat plastic, called tube-nosed seabirds. These birds – which include albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters – have a remarkable sense of smell. Savoca determined that some of them likely use their super sniffers to track the sulfurous aroma of nutritious zooplankton patches. Specifically, they seek out emissions of dimethyl sulfide, a chemical that phytoplankton releases when its eaten by zooplankton.

By comparing existing records of plastic ingestion in more than 20,000 individual tube-nosed seabirds, Savoca found that the birds that forage based on dimethyl sulfide cues were six times more likely to consume plastic than those that didn’t. Through experiments, he further determined that plastic left to soak in the ocean gave off a dimethyl sulfide smell more than strong enough to potentially trick these birds into thinking it is food. Savoca also showed that anchovies, which are also known to eat plastic, respond similarly to smells of food and plastic, clustering near the source of either odor.

Now, Savoca continues to work on plastic pollution in the ocean as part of the lab led by JEREMY GOLDBOGEN, an assistant professor of biology at Hopkins Marine Station. There, he’s studying how this pollution might be affecting baleen whales, such as humpback and blue whales. Alongside this research, Savoca continues to work on bringing science to a wider audience.

“Whenever I publish anything I think is important or interesting, I write a blog post or pitch a story,” he said. “I don’t just want it to be read by other scientists. I want to communicate what I’m doing to the general public. Part of that is because I’m funded by the general public and so the general public have a right to know what I’m up to.”

In addition to having his essay published, Savoca was awarded $10,000 for winning his category. He is also invited to join the three other winners in Sweden in December for a week of events honoring the sciences, including meeting with leading researchers in his field and an awards ceremony and banquet held in the original venue of the Nobel Prize banquet.