Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

My job explained: Marine chemist

marine chemistMartin Preston is a senior lecturer in marine chemistry at the University of Liverpool. Here he tells us about research ‘cruises’ around the world and why you need to have an adventurous spirit to enjoy his job.

Was there anything or anyone in particular that inspired you to study sciences?

I had enthusiastic teachers at school who really inspired me, including a chemistry teacher who never once considered health and safety issues and whose laboratory ceiling was full of scars from the impacts of various explosions. My interests in marine science came later, after I’d started at university. I think these came partly because of influences like Jacques Cousteau (an inventor, explorer and film maker) but also because students I got to know in oceanography were obviously having such a good time that I changed courses to join them.

How long did it take to train and what did the training involve?

In one sense I started to train when I came to university at 17 and as I’m still here some (many) years later it’s still going on. More realistically I suppose that I trained in chemistry and physics and then transferred to oceanography for my BSc Honours degree – that took me four years. I then did a PhD which took several more years though I was very lucky to be appointed to a lectureship before I finished my thesis. That wouldn’t happen now though. If you want to do marine science research then a postgraduate qualification is essential. However, many people working in the ‘water business’ have not done that but have received extra training as part of their jobs.

Can you describe a typical working day?

One of the great pleasures of the work I do is that there is almost no such thing as a typical day. For example, three weeks ago I was working on a small island on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Last week I was in the office preparing a research grant proposal. This week I’m teaching undergraduates, marking coursework and preparing lectures. Next week I’m supposed to be going on a research cruise in the Irish Sea.

During the next year I’ll be working in Oman, Saudi Arabia and possibly Australia again. Libya and Morocco are also possible as well as more teaching, research with my postdoctoral research assistant and supervision of my postgraduate students. At times I’m contacted by TV or newspaper journalists or programme makers to provide a comment or ideas. On the downside there’s always a background of paperwork and bureaucracy but not so much of it that I can’t look over the top of it and see the sky.

What's the best thing about your job?

That there is no such thing as a typical day!

What have been the challenges in getting to where you are now and how have you overcome it?

On a personal level the hardest decision was to change from a ‘safe’ option of chemistry into a subject that is not taught at school/college level and where my personal outcomes were uncertain. I made the choice because it was really what I wanted to do so I held my breath and jumped. I’ve never regretted it.

By its very nature marine science is a multidisciplinary and international subject. I work with colleagues with backgrounds in chemistry, mathematics, marine biology, geology, geophysics, computing and engineering and from many different countries. Grappling with the ideas, principles and vocabulary of the different subject areas and cultures is always challenging. Hard work, enthusiasm and willingness to listen to others’ views are always necessary but sometimes hard to sustain. On a practical level, when a ship sails everyone is quite literally ‘in the same boat’ and that encourages a level of inclusiveness and mutual support amongst everyone involved that would be hard to match in any other subject area.

What qualities and skills do you think are important for your role?

In no particular order: persistence, lateral thinking, improvisation, a good background in science, willingness to work with and learn from others, organisation, time management, enthusiasm, hard graft and a spirit of adventure. Not being susceptible to seasickness is also a bonus!

What advice would you give to someone thinking about following in your footsteps?

Do it because you really want to and be prepared to stick at it when things are difficult because the rewards are really worth it and you can make a difference.

Many people don't know about the difference that science can make to society - what do you think is the most useful thing about it?

Words and phrases like 'greenhouse effect', 'global warming', 'climate change', 'sea-level rise' and 'pollution' are in common usage all around us. I believe that only scientific understanding of the problems that in turn leads to viable and practical solutions will ultimately determine whether the human race continues to survive on this planet.

What is your favourite scientific invention?

My favourite invention is Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver. If I had one of those I’m sure I could tackle anything and my seagoing toolbox would be a lot lighter.