Tamara Adkins, PhD ’08

The Tears of a Mermaid

“In the world’s oceans, discarded plastic kills off more of the food chain every day. Its chemicals have a profound effect on human reproduction, and nothing can stop the damage from what’s already been dumped,” says Tamara Adkins, a student in the Antioch University New England Environmental Studies PhD program.
Tamara lived at sea for seven of the most formative years of her life. From ages seven to fourteen, she and her parents made a sailboat their home, exploring the Atlantic Ocean. And now, she is dedicated to the beleaguered oceans.

“Instead of having normal pets, I played with dolphins,” Adkins, 34, says of her unconventional life without television, radio, or any pop culture. Her parents shielded her from outside influences. “It gives me a way to look at culture from an outsider’s perspective. As a result, she says, everything is curious and interesting.”

Curiosity Replaced by Compassion
Curiosity took her to Japan, Africa, Central America, and dozens of other places. But compassion propelled her travels and work as an adult. She sought to empower women while studying midwifery in Guatemala. She looked after homeless children in the streets of Nairobi. She worked to address the causes of premature puberty in Puerto Rican girls.

“I thought I wanted to be a physician, because that would be a way to make a tangible difference,” Tamara recalls. “But squatting amidst the sewers and rats in Kenya, and on the trash-strewn shores of Puerto Rico,” she says she, started to realize that working one-on-one with patients without addressing their environments wouldn’t get us very far. “I thought I could make more of a difference by learning what’s outside of individual control.”

Tamara’s undergraduate study of women’s health as it relates to international development led her to seek a master’s degree in public health from the Oregon State University. She investigated environmental health hazards in rural Oregon. But she also chose Oregon for its shoreline, and she was not content to look at the Pacific. “I have to be in it; I can’t just sit beside it. I spent as much time as I could in the ocean, playing with sea lions.”

In Search of an Ocean to Swim In
“My friends joke that I’m a mermaid. They ask, ‘where are you from?’ and I say, ‘oh, the Atlantic Ocean.’” But her return to New England, where she had swum as a child, disgusted her. “We drove from Boston to New Bedford, looking for a spot where I could get wet, but everywhere we went there was grime and debris on the surface. I couldn’t bear to put a toe in.”

That’s when Tamara’s true vocation came calling. “I had been looking at pollution on land, but after seeing what was happening in the ocean, it really changed me.” She has trained her eye to detect the oceans’ most common pollutants, and now goes to the beach and sees plastic everywhere. I can’t miss the nurdles (pellets from which plastic is made, also known as mermaid tears for their effect on marine life), “and I notice that the sand is no longer sand, it’s plastic that’s broken down.”

With a scientist’s grasp of details, Tamara focuses her doctoral studies on plastics, their effect on the oceans, and their movement through the food chain. At a recent presentation, she picked up a student’s water bottle, inspected the bottom, and announced the bottle’s inclusion of synthetic estrogen that can disrupt the endocrine system. The horrified student reared back. “It’s my favorite molecule,” Tamara said with a playful laugh. Bisphenol-A. It has been connected to the increase in premature puberty in girls. And it’s pretty much everywhere. Then she described the preponderance of plastic in the Pacific and its rampant production throughout the world.

Tamara’s research interests and environmental ethics led her to Antioch and its doctoral program. She scrutinized other programs, but, in the end, “Antioch was the only place I wanted to go because Antioch is different. First, I can design my own program with an incredible support structure and a challenging faculty. And second, Antioch doesn’t take money from industry. Other schools insisted that I experiment on animals and [the schools] took funding from corporations that could have presented a conflict of interest.”

Within Antioch’s PhD program, Tamara finds rigor applied to her own research. “I wanted to go where I could maintain my intellectual independence. Antioch’s perfect for that,” Tamara says.

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