NORSUS researcher Valentina Pauna on coming to NORSUS and her new interdisciplinary approach to solve environmental problems

Valentina Pauna

Valentina Pauna took her PhD at the “Parthenope” University of Naples, Italy. – I applied for my PhD at “Parthenope” after being a volunteer there for some time, she explains. Here she is at a conference for Società Italiana di Ecologia (SItE) in Ferrara September, 2019. PHOTO: Private

Through her PhD thesis, NORSUS researcher Valentina Pauna developed a new methodology for information flow to turn environmental estimates into prediction.

Information Flow Analysis (IFA) focuses on data and information flows from many different fields of study that are relevant for almost any environmental problem.

The idea behind the IFA methodology is to think about how data can link fields by revealing their direct and indirect synergies.

– Critical surrounding metrics

Valentina Pauna
Valentina was extracting microplastics through filtration of the environmental samples (sea water, sediment, and holothuria tubulosa) in the laboratory of the Bioscience Research Center in Grosseto. PHOTO: Private

Valentina Pauna chose to focus on microplastics in her PhD, and a central part of her work was done out in the field where she extracted microplastics from sea cucumbers.

– But I also needed to understand the surrounding metrics because meta data is critical for analysis and assessment. We need to look at the sea water, the sediment, and everything around the sea cucumber to get all the data points we need to map the real consequences of pollution, not just from monetary value or a toxicological standpoint, but holistically, Valentina explains.

The key areas of Valentina’s study were ecotoxicology, toxicology, risk assessment, life cycle assessment (LCA), material flow analysis, environmental monitoring and sampling, and decision making. To cover the complexity of fields and attain a more complete data overview, she developed the IFA methodology.

– The methodology is relevant for almost any environmental problem because environmental issues that we have, like anthropogenic pressure on the environment, are inherently complex, and so is the social ecological system. We are all very connected, emphasizes Valentina.

Applied for her PhD in Italy

Born and raised in Colorado, USA, Valentina took her PhD at the “Parthenope” University of Naples, Italy. After her master’s degree in Climate Science and Solutions at Northern Arizona University in the US, she wanted a break and worked as both a ski instructor and climbing coach while searching for vacancies.

– It turned out I needed several years of experience – or a PhD - to get hired. I had thought about it, but was not set on what to do, says Valentina.

She went to Italy visiting family friends, and to avoid the trip leaving a full gap in work, she volunteered at the lab of Ecodynamics and Sustainable Development at ”Parthenope” in Naples.

– The people I was working with were in the PhD programme Environment, Resources and Sustainable Development. So, I decided to apply for the PhD, and I was accepted into the program, tells Valentina.

She wanted to focus on a “new” problem that needed to take into consideration “valuation”, and found microplastics to be a current issue. Her work is also related to one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), SDG 14: Life Below Water, which is consistent with the current EU interest in the SDGs.

A major part of Valentina’s PhD work was done out in the field. Here she is assisting with water quality measurements in Orbetello, Italy, July, 2019. – It was crucial to not only extract microplastics from sea cucumbers, but also to understand the surrounding metrics because meta data is critical for analysis and assessment, she explains. PHOTO: Private

Marine impacts in LCA

At the same time as she worked with her PhD thesis, she was a member of the scientific committee in a project of marine impacts and LCA, called MarILCA. There she met senior researcher Cecilia Askham from NORSUS, who liked Valentina’s thesis concept.

Askham asked her to collaborate on another deliverable, and for the two last years they have been working on an article together with other risk assessment, ecotoxicologist and life cycle assessment experts.

– The article is focusing on plastic and aiming to get marine impacts in lifecycle assessment. We have tried to extract from all these people what kind of data is needed and what data we have available. Is there more metadata that they can extract from their experiments that can supplement our research, or is it completely unrealistic for us to ask about for instance the specific size of each individual microplastic particle? Is that even relevant for us? That article really helped me draw the connections between those fields of study based on data and then apply that to an actual case study area, Valentina explains.

Research flexibility

Today, she and Cecilia are colleagues at NORSUS. Valentina has been working at the headquarter in Fredrikstad since December 2021, and in May 2022 she successfully defended her PhD thesis “Addressing new global environmental problems: An interdisciplinary approach to assess the impacts of microplastics on marine ecosystems” and was titled senior researcher.

The 29-year-old American has moved to Fredrikstad and enjoys her new Norwegian life.

As the institution has great flexibility for research, she is interested in studying other fields than microplastics.

– At NORSUS, a part of what I am working on is continuing my microplastics interdisciplinary research interest and research basis. Another part of it is focused on lifecycle assessment and lifecycle impact assessment, and a third part of it is learning about the practical application of LCA through the environmental product declarations. – I have found a place with creative and similar people to me who also want research freedom, says Valentina Pauna.


“ADDRESSING NEW GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS: An interdisciplinary approach to assess the impacts of microplastics on marine ecosystems”

• Was among the first 3 researchers to publish literature in which bibliometric analysis was used with a focus on microplastics (MPs)

• Applied an interdisciplinary approach to understanding marine MP pollution by participating in field sampling, extraction, and laboratory analysis of MPs and using this knowledge to propose a feasible method for validating MP emission estimates, by acknowledging the limits of environmental sampling and laboratory analysis

• The thesis consisted of:
– Literature review to understand best practices in sampling and extraction of MPs
– Sampling and analysis of sea cucumber, sediment and seawater from Punta Campanella, Italy
– Proposing a general reporting protocol for MP research studies
– And developing a new method to connect field sampling and analysis to “big-picture” environmental assessment

• Development of a new method called Information Flow Analysis (IFA), which connects relevant fields of study through their information and data output, in this case with respect to Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in the context of microplastics

• The thesis has an overarching aim to contribute to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water, by proposing methods for filling crucial data gaps that are hindering the progress of marine MP research