Zhenyu Tian

“When talking about pollution, people tend to think it is about a big oil spill, something from a pointed source, but pollution happens in our everyday lives.”

Zhenyu Tian knows from first-hand experience what the damages of microplastics can do. As a research scientist at the Center for Urban Waters, University of Washington Tacoma, Zhenyu got his Ph.D. in environmental science from the University of North Carolina. While looking for a postdoctoral research opportunity, Zhenyu was struck by a presentation from his future advisor: a dramatically high mortality rate in Pacific Northwest Coho salmon. He joined the UW research group led by Ed Kolodziej, hoping to find out why urban stormwater kills coho. Taking his curiosity further, he went to sample collections when citizen scientists reported coho mortality cases, and  Coho salmon seemed to be dying from unnatural reasons. 

“When you see the fish struggling, that is your motivation.”

Over the next two and a half years, Zhenyu and the Kolodziej research group set out to find what exactly was causing Coho salmon to die when they reproductively seemed healthy. In their published study,  “A ubiquitous tire rubber-derived chemical induces acute mortality in coho salmon,” Zhenyu and his team found the common killer: a rubber chemical called 6PPD-quinone, which derived from a common preservative that allows for tires to last longer. Many tires are made with synthetic rubber which is plastic, making them a major source of microplastics. Zhenyu’s study shows that plastic pollution is happening in our everyday lives whether that be our daily drive to school or a quick trip to the store. He hopes that this study allows for people to think about pollution differently, something that is directly tied to us, and something we need to solve.

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