Interview with Laura Markley
PhD Student and Founder of Waste-Free PhD
What is your PhD about?
My dissertation is still in development, but I’m currently working on a pilot project to see how storage conditions impact the release of certain estrogenic chemicals from plastics. There are a lot of chemicals added to plastics to give them their properties, whether it be their flexibility, durability, glassy appearance, etc. Some of these chemicals, like Bisphenol-A, can mimic estrogen or disrupt hormone functioning in the body and are known endocrine disruptors. I’m also hoping to study the distribution of microplastics in nearby freshwater lakes.
Tell us about yourself?
My name is Laura Markley, I’m a 2nd year PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Syracuse University studying plastic pollution and its impacts on human and environmental health. I also run Waste-Free PhD and am currently collaborating on some projects where I’m graphic designing or planning workshops on waste reduction in my community. I’m a major coffee and taco bell addict (but not together)!
What is your side hustle?
I founded and run Waste-Free PhD, a blog and social media account where I address topics related to science misinformation and simple ways to reduce waste.
Why did you start your side hustle?
When I first started trying to reduce my waste, I realized that there was a lot of scientific misinformation about chemicals and waste on social media. Influencers were misinforming their followers on a massive scale and nothing was being done about it. I wanted to address this severe lack in the community and show that not all of these issues are black and white. They are mostly somewhere in between, in a gray area.
Without having accurate information, we will never solve the problems of waste management and overconsumption without creating more problems. It’s like how many plastic manufacturers have switched from using BPA to BPS and BPF, they now market things as BPA-free, but they can be just as harmful. It was a short-sighted change to appease the market, but not solve the underlying problem.
What does an average day in the life look like for you?
It really depends on the day, sometimes I am working exclusively on literature review and method development for my PhD project and other days I am working on a variety of side projects. Since I came from a geology background, I spend some time each week studying up on endocrine disruption and biological mechanisms. I check journal alerts to keep up with recent literature on plastics and microplastics. Some days I have meetings for a variety of projects or networking activities. This semester I’m sporadically working on three collaborations and an internship as a Sustainable Communities Steward. I attend seminars within my department, my NSF Research Traineeship Program called EMPOWER, and for my Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Future Professionals Program. My schedule tends to be very inconsistent and flexible, which works for me! (In-between all of this is a lot of imposter syndrome and existential crises.) Once I start my experiments, that will take up much more of my time.
What advice would you give others looking at starting a side hustle?
Be consistent, present, authentic, and do your research. If you are filling a need and presenting authentic information, people will gravitate towards that. Don’t give up just because things aren’t successful right away, learn from others and continue to adapt your approach. I knew nothing about social media or marketing prior to starting my Instagram account and I now find it a remarkable way to connect with people. It’s vital to understand and address the needs of your target audience. Also make sure to keep a part of your life separate from work, which includes whatever side hustle you’re working on. You can get burnt out very quickly if you try to be present 24/7.
How does your PhD help you in your side hustle?
Actively pursuing a PhD while I work on my blog has motivated me to keep up-to-date on relevant information in my field and how it pertains directly to public perception and concerns. I would say that my side hustle has strengthened my knowledge as a PhD student and made me more well-rounded and increased my networking potential, while my PhD has given me the flexibility and resources to pursue my passions in plastic and microplastic research. As busy and stressful as it can be sometimes, I think that being a scientist comes with the responsibility to communicate research to the public. Not everyone has access to journal articles, which is a huge accessibility problem. I think its vital that people are able to read this information and learn more about topics that should concern all of us that are living on an increasingly plastic planet.
What would you do differently if you had your time over?
Sometimes I think that if I could go back, I would pursue my interest in toxicology earlier. I’ve always been interested in public health and the environment. But then again, I think that my background in soil geochemistry, hydrology, and geology have given me an interdisciplinarity that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m thankful for my past experiences, where they’ve brought me, and what they’ve taught me. I’ve learned to be an advocate for myself and pursue what matters to me.