Serving our nation, protecting our oceans

Reese Reiling is literally getting her hands and feet wet as she studies micro plastics abundance in Boston Harbor and Nantucket Island. She has traveled on research boats to look at different species and conduct sampling that demonstrates recovery efforts are working.

“Boston Harbor was one of the dirtiest, most polluted, harbors in the world,” said Reiling, a first-year masters student in marine science and technology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “They’ve been cleaning it up in the past 30 years. There is a lot of life back in it now. We can see lobsters, crabs, oysters — things we didn’t see previously. Slow but steady restoration is happening here. It’s really inspiring.”

Reiling, among The American Legion’s Legacy Scholarship recipients for this year, also draws inspiration from her father, Army veteran Timothy Walsh.

“Receiving The American Legion Legacy Scholarship has really helped me further my education and being able to mix that with my dad’s military service is a real honor,” said Reiling, of Brookfield, Conn. “I was very excited to hear that I was one of the recipients of The American Legion Legacy Scholarship. It’s made me focus just on school and not worry about any external financial struggles.”

His 80 percent VA disability rating qualified his daughter for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship. The scholarship goes to children of post-9/11 veterans who were either killed while on active duty or have a combined disability rating of 50 percent or greater. (The application for the 2023-24 college year opens Jan. 1 and the deadline is April 1. Learn more about the scholarship, eligibility criteria and how to apply here.)

Walsh was in the Army during the 1990s then rejoined in the aftermath of 9/11. As a sergeant, he served from 2001-07, including a deployment as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“He is a very strong man and I am very proud that he was part of the military that served our country,” Reiling said. “I also want to be able to help others. Being able to help other people is what I wanted to do. So finding a medium between science, which I love, and being able to help others like my dad is what I want to continue to do and be able to protect our planet.”

Reiling is grateful for the donors who funded the scholarship, which allows her to achieve a balance among classes, research projects and life commitments, without having to also work.

“I would have to give the biggest thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “It means more than they would ever know that I am able to continue on my education. Without the scholarship, I’m not sure how I would be able to achieve a work-life balance. Having a full-time job on top of this would make it really hard to not only finish on time but also finish the research I’m wanting to do. It’s a big weight off my back.”

UMass Boston is located along the harbor walk, a perfect location for those studying marine science.

“The ocean is the biggest ecosystem in the entire world,” she said. “It takes up most of our planet and needs help. It’s something I really want to be able to fix. A lot of it is really in danger and be able to help bring it back to life a little and stop some of the climate change actions that we’ve caused. It’s very eye-opening to see the amount of plastics in our ocean.”

So far, every sample Reiling has collected has contained plastics. And these are not large items like bags, used water bottles or other items floating around. They are micro plastics and they are everywhere.

“There are micro plastics in everything we touch and see,” she explained. “They come off our clothes because there is plastic in all of our clothes, unless it is 100% cotton. We are looking in the microscope to see the abundance of how much plastic — and what kind — is floating around.”

Reiling is planning to do her masters thesis on the amount of micro plastics in the air and in the lungs of seals. That will transition well to her career goal after college. “I hope to do coastal restoration work, after seeing what they did with Boston Harbor,” she says.