Community Spotlight: PhD student Dorothy Horn reflects on her NSF Fellowship

Dorothy HornDorothy Horn’s first words about the National Science Foundation Fellowship she landed this spring were simple: “It’s huge,” she said.

The PhD student and Institute for Sustainable Solutions Student Fellow is studying the impacts of microplastics on marine environments with Professor Elise Granek. She says she’s applied for a lot fellowships over the years.

“I get turned down a lot,” Horn said. “It’s kind of like a bad dating game.”

But not this time. Horn is one of four Portland State students to receive NSF fellowships this year. Each will receive an annual stipend of $34,000 as well as a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance. Horn and her colleagues were chosen from a pool of 12,000 applicants and were among the 2,000 fellowships awarded this year.

For Horn the fellowship means that she can focus on her research mapping the impacts of microplastics on the near-shore food chain; continuing to engage younger students in research along the coast in California, Oregon and Costa Rica; and developing new research projects with partners like the Nature Conservancy.

Horn, who served for several years in the Marine Corps before going to college, is passionate about getting the word out to the public about her research and speaks often to non-academic audiences to raise awareness about the impacts of the millions of tiny pieces of plastics on the marine environment. Using a powerful microscope, Horn and other researchers are able to specifically identify the kinds of plastics in the environment and the results are important for the public to know about.

“It’s really important for people to understand,” she said.

She describes the tiny plastic particles—95 percent of which are microfibers from the clothes we wear—as tiny pieces of velcro that attract dangerous chemicals and heavy metals and transfer them to whatever marine organism happens to consume it.

Horn’s other passion is opening up the field of research to students who might not think of themselves as researchers.

“I like to find students who don’t get lots of help with everything,” Horn said. “I’ve gotten a lot of cool opportunities over the years and I want to return that by providing research opportunities for students who might not otherwise have access to them.”